Rick Perry: Still Not Quite Ready For Prime Time

A long-time reader writes:

Prompted by a request from John, I thought I would offer my impressions of the Fox/Google Republican presidential debate. First, let’s declare a winner in pure debate terms, without regard to standing in the polls and likelihood of electoral success. For me, that winner is Herman Cain. While I can’t vouch for its accuracy, Cain’s explanation of why he likely would not have survived his bout with cancer under Obamacare was probably the best answer of the evening by any candidate. But his other answers were spot on, as well. And “9-9-9” is starting to grow on me.

Rick Santorum turned in the second best performance, I thought. Once again, he mixed it up very effectively – this time with Rick Perry on immigration and Jon Huntsman on Iraq. I also loved the way he worked Ronald Reagan into his explanation of how he would get America moving again.

To date, Santorum has combined the ability to articulate conservative principles and to provide solid analysis (as these debates go) of specific issues better than anyone in the field. I understand that he hasn’t come close to catching fire, and probably won’t. But if I had the opportunity to vote in a straw poll, Santorum would probably be my choice.

Michele Bachmann debated well, once again. At this point, though, she is probably no more than a spoiler. Indeed, the better she debates the more ground she seems to lose. Bachmann also continues to play fast-and-loose with the facts. Tonight, in arguing that Republicans can win the presidency without “settling” for a less than pure conservative, she claimed (if I recall correctly) that President Obama has the lowest approval rating of any president in memory. In fact, however, our last president had significantly lower ratings.

The person Bachmann most threatens to “spoil” is Rick Perry. If she stays in the race through the Iowa caucus, which seems likely, she could cause him serious damage. Right now, she’s focusing mostly on his decision to order vaccinations for 12 year-old girls, with the suggestion that he was influenced by campaign contributions from Merck. But Perry seems even more vulnerable on immigration issues.

There is some evidence that Perry has damaged himself with weak debate performances. Tonight, he may have done so again. But the news isn’t all bad on that front. The good news if that, when asked questions for which he’s prepared, he usually sounds good (though he did stumble on his canned catalogue of three Romney flip-flops). The bad news is that, when asked a question for which he’s not prepared, particularly a question about policy, he treads water at best.

This suggests that, if Perry works hard enough, effective answers should begin to predominate. Right now, though, he’s not quite ready for prime time.

Mitt Romney wasn’t quite ready for prime time in 2008. Now he certainly is, at least as far as debating goes (whether he can connect with voters remains to be seen). Tonight, he gave another assured performance.

For me, his most interesting answer came when asked about his (alleged) claim that Perry is “unelectable.” Romney explained that he never actually said that, which is fine, assuming (as I do) that it is accurate. Then, Romney took the high road, saying that Perry faces challenges, as all of the candidates do.

Here, I thought he gave too much ground. Though Romney may not have claimed that Perry is unelectable, he has been promoting the notion that Perry’s past statements on issues like Social Security raise serious electability questions. By backing off of this theme as far as he did in response to a direct question, I thought Romney looked weak – a bit like when Tim Pawlenty did when he backed away from his attacks on Romneycare.

However, the long-time readers with whom I watched the debate, who possess at least as much political savvy as I do, thought that it served Romeny well to take the high road on this question. And certainly, he mixed it up plenty with Perry during the course of the evening. So perhaps Romney made the right call not to attack one more time. Most likely, it was a moment that, though interesting, will prove inconsequential.

My most important takeways are (1) Perry isn’t debating at the level that probably will be required of him, (2) if he works at it enough, Perry may be able to reach that level, but (3) Perry has problems on some pretty important issues, most notably immigration, that cannot be solved by better debating.