After his disastrous "brain freeze" this week in Michigan, many were watching for a fresh stumble that would spell the end of Gov. Rick Perry's campaign Saturday night in the CBS News/National Journal debate in South Carolina.
Instead, the Texas governor turned in what may be his best debate performance yet on in a subject area that arguably ought to be his weakest — foreign policy and national security.
The debate focused on Asia and the Middle East, barely touching on the border and immigration issues that Perry has cut his teeth on as Texas governor. But Perry offered articulate and at times forceful answers — if not always to the question asked — that displayed a previously unseen comfort level with his policies.
His strongest response of the night came when he was asked about enhanced interrogation techniques. Perry said foreign enemies are targeting young American men and women and would "kill them in a heartbeat under any circumstances, using any techniques they can." Then raising his voice to almost a shout, he said, "This is war." For the U.S. not to have the ability to use the techniques to get information that would save lives, he said, is "a travesty."
"That's what happens in war, and I'm for using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young Americans' lives and I will be for it until I die," he said.
The question happened during the last third of the debate, which most viewers had to watch online.
Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said that Perry, ironically, delivered his best debate performance to date on a subject in which he had the least expertise. (Pitney pointed out that Perry had goofed during the previous debate on the subject of energy, possibly his strongest).
“This isn’t going to catapult him into first place, but it could halt the slide,” Pitney said. “He turned in a solid performance. If he had been like this all along he would be in a much stronger position.”
Pitney said it was probably too late to turn around the race for Perry and that “one good performance” in a debate on a Saturday night is not enough to undo the wounds the Texas governor inflicted upon himself.
Perry never came close to a moment as cringe-inducing as his 32-second long gaffe Wednesday night. But moderators prodded him on a few occasions to offer responses more specific to the question at hand. When asked to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan, he offered criticism of the Obama administration’s timeline for withdrawal, saying it was “inappropriate” and “irresponsible leadership.” When pressed to elaborate, he said that the commanders there were doing their best despite a lack of support on the ground.
Later, when asked about Pakistan’s political “double game” with the U.S. and the Taliban, his response instead was about how he would reduce foreign aid to all countries to zero and then “have a conversation” about how much they should get. Asked again to answer the question, he said, “It's the military, it's the secret service that's who's running that country, and I don't trust them."
And again, when asked if the U.S. was engaged in financial warfare with the Chinese, Perry delivered a nice soundbite but reframed the question — saying the U.S. had to win the “cyber war” with China and that the “Communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues."
Perry also continued to make light of his blunder during the previous debate. In response to a question about what he would do with the management of nuclear weapons if the Department of Energy were closed — the third federal agency that Perry forgot — he joked with the moderator, saying, "You remembered." Later, he brought it up again in response to a question about zeroing out foreign aid. "As a matter of fact we ought to try doing that with some of those agencies that I was trying to think of the name of," he said. (He kidded about it with other candidates backstage, too, as the video clip below from CBS News shows.)
Perry's performance sparked some contention and was not error-free. A Democratic-aligned group said the U.S. has a 10-year foreign aid agreement with Israel, so Perry's vow for zero-based budgeting could interfere with that pledge. And the Texas governor appears to have invented a new word — forewithal. He apparently meant to say "wherewithal."
But in the spin room after the debate, Perry allies said they were buoyed by his strong performance. U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., one of the first congressmen to endorse Perry, said this was Perry's best debate by a long shot.
"I don’t think there’s any comparison. I thought by far this was his strongest performance. … In fact, he was driving the debate. Go back and look at what the Twitter question was that came in it was on an issue that he raised. … I think you’re gonna hear us talking about zero-based budgeting on foreign aid from here on out.”
Mulvaney said Perry supporters in South Carolina, shaken by the governor's last week, were buoyed by his strong performance Saturday night.
"A good debate helps; a bad debate like we had the other night doesn’t help,” Mulvaney said. But he also noted that the gaffe, when Perry couldn't remember one of the three federal departments he wanted to shut down, had "become a sort of lighthearted topic of conversation.”
The head of Perry's South Carolina efforts, former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, was even more ebullient. He said Perry had "hit a home run this evening” and had punched a “reset button.”
“We went from worst to first,” Dawson said. "We certainly outshined everybody on stage this evening. [It was] a big night for Gov. Perry. A big win.’’
A Romney spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, brushed off a question about how Perry did.
“I thought all the candidates did well," he said. "I’m partial to my own candidate."
Another Romney adviser said Perry did better than he has in previous performances.
But, motioning down to his knees, he said: "The bar is down here. Even I can get over that."