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Front-runner No More, Perry Struggles for Spotlight in Latest Debate

Rick Perry didn’t blow it or commit any serious gaffes, but in his latest debate the Texas governor found himself in a position that seemed unimaginable even a few weeks ago: largely out of the spotlight and struggling for airtime.

Candidates during the second hour of the Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College on Oct. 11, 2011.

Rick Perry didn’t blow it or commit any serious gaffes, but in his latest televised debate, the Texas governor found himself in a position that seemed unimaginable even a few weeks ago: largely out of the spotlight and struggling for airtime.

In his first debate Perry complained that he was beat up so much he felt like a “piñata.” But on Tuesday night at the Bloomberg/Washington Post debate in New Hampshire, Perry did not get near as much attention from the panelists or his opponents. Nor did he display the swagger and defiance that have come to define him.

Even front-runner Mitt Romney, who has been ripping Perry at every opportunity, ignored the governor when it came to the question-and-answer session allowing candidates to confront each other. Instead, the former governor of Massachusetts threw struggling candidate U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann a softball question about her jobs proposals.

Perry "seemed remarkably passive, just a real non-presence,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas. “He certainly didn’t do anything to reassert himself into the top tier.”

It's been a pretty big come-down for a GOP candidate who took the race by storm when he rocketed to the top of polls after an Aug. 13 announcement.

During the roughly two-hour-long debate, which was focused on economic issues, Perry tried to stay on his core jobs message, returning repeatedly to his vow to make the United States less dependent on foreign energy and to reduce the role of Washington in the U.S. economy. The governor seemed to be giving an early preview of a jobs plan he is expected to unveil later this week in Pittsburgh.

“It’s time for another American Declaration of Independence,” Perry said. “It’s time for energy independence.”

The governor, who came across as unfocused and sometimes confused in earlier appearances, clearly had done more homework and preparation for the Dartmouth debate. He offered more context and policy substance, at one point noting that former President Ronald Reagan had complained in his diaries about the lack of spending cuts that he had expected Congress would pass to help pay for deficit reduction.

But he may have over-corrected by sounding somewhat rehearsed and, as Henson put it, “stilted.”

While other candidates jumped in without warning, Perry passed up an early opportunity to chime in on the question of Wall Street bailouts, leaving that to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain, who has surged to second in many of the latest polls.

Romney, who has again grabbed the treacherous front-runner label, was in the hot seat, taking fire for seemingly trying to have it both ways on whether the 2008 Wall Street bailout was appropriate.

As he has before, Perry went after Romney for signing into law as Massachusetts governor the health care initiative that many analysts say is the forerunner to the reforms President Obama passed at the federal level. Romney was obviously ready for it.

He said Perry was misrepresenting the Massachusetts law. He said the reforms were aimed at covering the uninsured, while Obama “takes over health care for everyone.” Then he turned the fire on Texas.

“We have the lowest number of kids as a percentage uninsured of any state in America. You have the highest,” Romney said. When Perry tried to interject, Romney shot back, raising his voice and keeping the Texas governor from jumping in: “I’m still speaking. I’m still speaking.”

“You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids. Under [then-Gov.] Bush, the percentage of uninsured went down,” he said. “Under your leadership, it’s gone up.”

Perry didn’t answer until given the opportunity to come back to it much later in the debate. He pointed to curbs on lawsuits and argued that he needed the federal government to give Texas more flexibility.

“We passed the most sweeping tort reform in the nation in 2003,” he said. “We also passed Healthy Texas, which expands the private sector insurance. And we have driven down the cost of insurance by 30 percent.”

The toughest grilling for Perry came at the end of the night, when Washington Post report Karen Tumulty asked him what was appropriate oversight of government investments. She asked him to explain the controversy surrounding the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which the state auditor's office has said needs more transparency and The Dallas Morning News reported has directed millions of dollars to Perry donors. 

Perry seemed prepared for the question, arguing that it has created 64,000 jobs. "Those people who have jobs are absolutely happy that we have a program," he said. And he emphasized again the role the Legislature plays in reviewing investments. 

After the debate, in the “spin room,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Perry struggled because he’s a “jobs candidate without a jobs plan." He said it was Romney's "best debate ever" but added that it's "not going to be wrapped up early for anyone."

Perry strategist Dave Carney said Romney had put his own out three months after he announced and noted that the Texas governor would produce his after ten weeks.

Carney offered more details  on what the structure of Perry's plan might look like. The first phase, which Perry described tonight, are executive actions that a president could do unilaterally. The second phase will be a "growth agenda" that focuses on what Congress can do. He said that the op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader was the first roll-out of the plan. 

Carney called Perry’s showing a “good, positive performance.”

Asked why the governor didn’t get as much air time as the others, he said he didn’t think any of the candidates “wanted to attack his economic credentials.”

It might be a relief to Perry not to have all the candidates piling on him. But it’s also proof of how far he has sunk. The one-time front-runner has seen his numbers plummet in the first two nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is now struggling in the single digits in recently released surveys.

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