Gov. Rick Perry fumbled his way through the last three televised debates, and his campaign has been in a downward spiral ever since. Now, flush with campaign cash and eager to pick himself up, Perry gets another chance to prove his debating mettle tonight.
The Bloomberg/Washington Post debate at Dartmouth College will focus on economic issues, which Perry has made a centerpiece of his campaign. That should theoretically play to the governor's strengths, offering a chance to redirect the conversation to Perry’s record of keeping jobs in Texas.
But the economic format also adds pressure on Perry to overcome considerable doubts about his ability to go beyond easy sound bites and act presidential.
“It really puts the spotlight on, 'Is there more to the message than him repeating Texas, Texas, Texas, jobs, jobs, jobs?'” says Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “This is a real opportunity for him to get more specific, and it can become a problem if he doesn't.”
Perry will deliver a policy speech in Pittsburgh on Friday, where he is expected to offer details of his jobs plan.
Perry rattled supporters and pundits alike with his unsteady delivery and answers on issues that made him seem less like the ideal conservative candidate many had imagined. The debates provided his opponents with a platform to chip away at his support with assaults on his stance on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, his statement calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and a 2007 order mandating the HPV vaccine for young girls. In Florida last time around, his lackluster performance — including a badly flubbed attack on Romney — attracted wide criticism from conservative commentators.
On the trail since the last debates, Perry has brushed off his past performances, saying voters don't want a pretty talker. "You measure a leader by how they walk, not how they talk,” he told Iowans in Orange City over the weekend.
But a narrative about Perry has begun to take root — that he isn’t ready for prime time.
"There's a little bit of blood in the water," says Fergus Cullen, a New Hampshire GOP political consultant who has yet to cast allegiances in the race. “If I were a reporter and I watched his answer on the Pakistan question [during the last debate], I would ask him harder questions about things that a president needs to know about but that a governor hasn't had to deal with.”
There is a chance that the debate will swerve away from economic policy. It will be the first since The Washington Post broke news that the Perry family leased a hunting camp that came with a racially offensive name. Since then, questions have arisen about whether Perry has a race problem, despite statements from the governor’s camp that his family had painted over the rock that bore the offensive name of the camp.
At Dartmouth, Perry will also be deep in the territory of his top rival, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. The outlook in New Hampshire appears bleak for Perry; polls have shown him trailing Romney by 30 points and behind much lesser known candidates.
Cullen challenges the expectation that it's too late for the Texas governor to make a showing there. He points out that Perry almost tied Romney when he first entered the race and that he's managed to pick up a number of endorsements from state representatives there.
The stakes are also higher in New Hampshire for the former Massachusetts governor: It's a must-win for him snag the nomination. And no one expects Perry to win — so “anything less than terrible there for them becomes some kind of victory,” Henson says.
Both Cullen and Henson agree that another mediocre showing from Perry won’t necessarily spell doom for his campaign. But it will be a lost opportunity to sway undecided voters who could be vital in determining which candidate survives with the nomination. Those undecided voters include Cullen.
"I do sense that his momentum has stalled, and it has stalled through self-inflicted wounds,” Cullen says. “If somebody like me watched that last debate, and said, boy, if he can't deliver the premeditated, rehearsed hit on Romney, how is he ever going to stand up to Barack Obama? And the people who are raising money for him have to be thinking that way, too."