That’s the question being asked in advance of tonight’s nationally televised GOP debate in Orlando, FL. Most of the people asking think the answer is yes. I still do not think the race is greatly influenced by debates few watch, based on the current polling numbers.

Take a look at the interactive graph on the GOP campaign at RCP. Rick Perry zooms upward and reaches a peak of 31.8% on Sept. 12. On that date, the prior frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is at 19.8%. Today, Perry stands at 28.4%, while Romney is at 20.6% Perry has dropped 3.4% from a peak; Romney has gained less than 1% during the period. Indeed, if you study the graph a bit closer, you will notice that Perry and Romney will occasionally rise and fall together, based on which polls are in the mix at a given moment.

Of course, the campaign ultimately does not depend on these national numbers. In Florida, the site of tonight’s debate, one might hypothesize that Romney’s attacks on Perry over Social Security would be particularly salient. But the recent Florida polls show about the same results as the national numbers: Perry drops 3, Mitt gains 2, with Perry +6 overall. Perry is fourth in New Hampshire, but those a head of him — Romney, Huntsman and Paul — are probably better fits for that state ideologically or regionally (Romney also leads big in Connecticut). In South Carolina, Perry leads, with roughly the same amount of support since the end of August, but Romney has gained more than he has nationally (it would be interesting to tote up how much time each has spent in-state this month). In the bellwether state of Missouri, Perry leads by 16 points. In the purplish state of Virginia, Perry leads by 6 points.

In sum, Perry’s trendline is no longer a hockey stick. On the other hand, Romney has not gained much during the period. What this tells us is that Perry is not the second coming of Reagan… but we all knew that from the start, didn’t we? The basic dynamic of the campaign remains largely unchanged. Perry could end up not wearing well with the electorate. But the conventional wisdom is rushing to that conclusion faster than the numbers warrant.

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