ORLANDO — Welcome to the Rick Perry pile-on.
After his relatively lackluster debate performance Thursday night, the conservative political pundit class has basically concluded that the Texas governor is not yet ready for prime-time.
Influential blogger Erick Erickson, the RedState editor who hosted Perry’s announcement speech in Charleston, called the governor’s showing a “train wreck,” and said Perry had “flubbed” and “stumbled” during the Fox/Google debate.
It wasn’t much better in the conservative Weekly Standard, where editor William Kristol wrote a special editorial entitled “Yikes.”
“No front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry,” Kristol wrote. “It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him.”
On Friday, Perry implicitly acknowledged that debating isn't his strongest skill. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Perry said his record as governor is more important than his ability to take questions on live television.
“It’s not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect," Perry said. "We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for this country."
Perry also renewed his attack on his chief rival, Mitt Romney, saying the health care plan he crafted as governor of Massachusetts was a "model for socialized medicine" — and strikingly similar to Barack Obama's reforms.
Romney is mixing it up, too. While Social Security has dominated the battle between the top two candidates in the increasingly competitive GOP field, the former Massachusetts governor is shifting to an attack from the right — on illegal immigration.
During the debate, Perry doubled down on his moderate immigration views. Here is how he responded to opponents of giving in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants: “I don’t think you have a heart.”
The line provoked a swipe from Romney at the CPAC event, held in the same convention center where the candidates debated on Thursday night. Romney spoke in the morning; Perry addressed the group in the afternoon.
“My friend Gov. Perry said if you don’t agree on his position to give in-state tuition to immigration, you don’t have a heart,” Romney told the group. “If you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.”
Perry’s moderate immigration views could give him a good centrist position in a head-to-head contest with Obama. But in the nomination battle that precedes the general election, it has put the Texas governor at odds with a significant slice of the angry GOP electorate.
A press release from the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC — titled “Rick Perry is Finished” — said the governor had “destroyed his chances” of winning the primary by defending in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who graduate in good standing from Texas high schools.
Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, said Perry had come close to “insulting” a key GOP constituency over the immigration issue. He also noted that Perry, in all three debate performances, seems to “run out of gas” halfway through — doing reasonably well early on and later seeming increasingly muddled and tired.
Sabato said it’s still a long way until the crucial Iowa caucuses, but the debates have not been kind to Perry.
“Perry had better step up his game,” Sabato said. “Romney’s presidential campaign experience is really starting to show.”
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified The Weekly Standard.]