That question comes to us from Byron York, but it’s probably being asked around many a breakfast table this morning among Republican households. Last night’s debate performance was another disappointment — not as bad as Rick Perry’s previous debate, but clearly inadequate in comparison to the others on the stage. If you don’t trust my judgment, let me refer you to an expert:
After the debate, Perry seemed to concede that he wasn’t looking to stand out.
“I just try to get up every day and do my job, and debates are not my strong suit,” the Texas governor told reporters following a post-debate party at a Dartmouth fraternity house.
Keep that in mind while reading Byron’s critique:
If Tuesday night’s debate had really been a make-or-break test, then Rick Perry’s candidacy would be broken. Of course, Perry is still in the race, and he has time — though not a lot — to recover. He also has a lot of money, about $15 million, to buy television advertising that could both bolster his image and tear down Romney’s. Carney says the campaign will air TV ads soon — he won’t say precisely when — but vows most will be positive ads introducing Perry to voters.
Compounding the bad news for Perry was the fact that Romney had another strong night. Talk to Republicans who don’t like Romney, who would like to see a serious conservative emerge to challenge Romney, and they still concede that the former Massachusetts governor seems in full command of himself, his program, and his performance. Romney has participated in six Republican debates this year, and despite his obvious weaknesses — the greatest being his Massachusetts universal health care plan — he has not suffered any serious setbacks. And on Tuesday night, in particular, he was riding high, having announced earlier in the day that he had received the endorsement of popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. …
David Carney, the top Perry aide, believes it still is. “Ultimately, the battle for the nomination will be, I think, between Mitt Romney and someone else,” David Carney said after the debate. “Our goal is to make us that someone else.”
The question after Tuesday night is whether Perry did anything at the debate to make progress toward that goal. The answer — best expressed by Perry’s own “not my strong suit” comment — appears to be no.
So then the question is really this: how much do debates matter? After all, Perry seems to handle all other aspects of campaigning superbly. He raises money by the bucketload and uses it efficiently, with a very low burn rate. He is expert at retail politicking of the kind that the Midwest and South demand. Perry handles himself well in interviews, although we haven’t yet seen a major network interview yet. On top of that, he has the Texas job record on which to run, although certainly with enough issues from eleven years of running Texas to rightly concern small-government advocates — but those voters would certainly see him as a better alternative than Mitt Romney on those points, too.
I’d guess that debates matter, matter significantly, and probably more than they should. Presidents don’t engage in formal debates in their four-year terms unless running for re-election, after all, but they do give voters a sense of whether a candidate has enough command of issues and rhetoric to succeed in Washington. It comes down to confidence and trust, and voters will not have much confidence in a candidate who bumbles through a series of debates. Perry could be a member of Mensa and that would still not eliminate the perception that he’s just not intellectually up to the task of discussing policy after these last three debates. Not even $15 million will erase that perception at this point, no matter how many positive ads Team Perry runs — ads which should already have been running, by the way.
That money isn’t meaningless, at least not yet. Perry has a debate in six days that could repair some of the damage done already, but his time is running out. And if he himself doesn’t have confidence in his ability to debate the issues toe to toe with Romney, Cain, and the other Republicans, then perhaps we know how this will turn out already.