As I commented last night on Twitter, Rick Perry has begun to remind me of the Minnesota Vikings in these debates. He starts off strong and runs up a lead in the first half, starts coasting, and then eventually turns the ball over repeatedly and loses. For the third debate in a row, Perry lost steam in the second half, lost focus — and in this case lost the ability to put together a coherent sentence in an attack that was clearly rehearsed. Perry leaped at the chance to attack Romney as a flip-flopper, which shouldn’t be that hard to do, and … well, see for yourself:

Romney’s first “Nice try,” on education and Romney’s support for Race to the Top, was a desperate bit of condescension. This one was a generous gesture to a struggling opponent.

Romney had his worst debate performance of the series, which makes Perry’s failure even worse. Mitt clumsily dodged a question about whether Obama’s policies are socialist, and then tried to deny that he supported Obama’s education policies by explaining that, er, he liked and supported Obama’s Secretary of Education. He continues to be vulnerable on RomneyCare, and the answer to “nothing changed for 92% of people in Massachusetts” is that nothing changed but price and choice. Insurance costs have skyrocketed thanks to RomneyCare’s mandates, and insurers have had to pare down plans to meet them — and some may leave the state altogether.

However, instead of attacking the answer, Perry went for an obviously rehearsed attack on Romney as a flip-flopper.  There’s nothing wrong with that as a debate strategy — if you can deliver the attack. If not, you end up with a spectacular failure, as we have here.  He needs a debate coach, and if he already has one, he needs to fire a debate coach and hire another.

Some might argue that debates don’t prove anything about how a candidate will function as President, but that’s not entirely true.  First, one has to win the election, and offering incoherent ramblings on television is no way to do that.  Second, voters have to have confidence in a candidate’s abilities to win their support, and anyone watching this part of the debate had to be wondering whether Perry is really up to the task of debating Barack Obama, or dealing with the media in a press conference, which is most certainly part of the job.

I’d expect Perry’s numbers to soften up after this performance.  And with that comes an opening for a late arrival into the race, especially if Romney’s numbers don’t move upward.