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Why Rick Perry’s debate performances haven’t hurt him (yet)

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been an uneven — to put it nicely — presence in the first two debates of his 2012 Republican presidential bid.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a Republican debate Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

For every strong moment, Perry has had two (at least) where he seems either taken aback by the level of vitriol directed his way by his rivals or simply uncertain of exactly how he should address some of his more problematic past positions.

From Social Security to the HPV vaccine to immigration, Perry has struggled to find answers that put those issues behind him.

And it doesn’t matter. Or at least it doesn’t matter yet.

There’s two reasons why Perry’s less-than-stellar performances in the two debates — the first in California last week, the second in Florida earlier this week — haven’t had all that much impact on his still-frontrunning campaign.

The first is that none of the controversies have really penetrated beyond the world of, for lack of a better term, people who watch and cover this stuff obsessively.

The average voter — even a Republican planning to vote in the primary process — is still only half-paying attention (if that) to the minute-by-minute developments of the race.

Might they have caught a few minutes of Monday night’s debate in between watching the Monday Night Football doubleheader? Sure.

But, the ratings bear out the fact that the debate was a sideshow as compared to football. The debate, which aired on CNN, had roughly 3.2 million viewers, roughly one-fifth of the 14.6 million people who watched the Patriots-Dolphins game and one-third of the 11.1 million took in the Broncos and Raiders matchup later in the evening.

The second reason why Perry’s debate performances haven’t had much impact on his standing in the race to date is that, to the extent he has taken on water, it’s been on attacks from his ideological right.

Take the HPV fight, for example. Perry struggled to explain — and walk back — his decision to issue an executive order for mandatory vaccinations amid heavy incoming from Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former senator Rick Santorum.

It was not a great moment for Perry. But, to the extent it — or the ensuing coverage — peeled votes away from him, those votes almost certainly headed not to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Perry’s main rival for the nomination, but rather to the likes of conservatives like Bachmann, Santorum or even Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

Losing votes to the candidates positioned to his ideological right isn’t a great thing for Perry but as long as those votes split between a handful of other conservative alternatives it’s not the worst thing either.

Presuming, as most people do, that the race comes down to a one-on-one fight between Perry and Romney, it’s a virtual certainty that those who fled from the Texas Governor in the wake of his debate performances will, ultimately, come back to him in a fight with Romney.

While those two factors make Perry’s early debate struggles perhaps less impactful than they might at first appear, that’s not to say that continued middling or lackluster debate performances could not have a real effect on the Texas Governor’s chances at the nomination.

At the core of Romney’s argument against Perry is that he is not someone who can beat President Obama next November.

Romney has been explicit about this point when it comes to Perry’s Social Security-as-Ponzi-scheme comments; “If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party,” Romney told conservative television and radio host Sean Hannity. Hard to be more blunt than that, right?

If Perry continues to stumble — on Social Security and other issues — as the debate season wears on, Romney’s rhetoric about Perry as general election risk will gain more salience among voters who will begin to tune in as fall turns to winter.

It’s also likely that further debate problems for Perry would mean a series of stories examining why he isn’t a particularly good debater, a process story that is not beneficial for the Texas Governor’s campaign.

While viewership of the coming debates isn’t likely to rise significantly, days or even weeks worth of coverage focused on Perry’s skills (or lack thereof) as a debater would almost certainly penetrate into the minds of most Republican primary voters.

The other potential problem for Perry is if a single candidate to his ideological right was able to coalesce the votes of those who saw him as insufficiently loyal to the cause.

The two candidates most likely to pull off that trick are Bachmann and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin — if she decides to run. (It’s not by accident that Palin hammered Perry on his HPV comments in the wake of Monday night’s debate.)

Neither woman is currently in a strong enough position to directly challenge Perry for the bulk of conservative-minded voters but with three debates over the next few weeks — including the Washington Post/Bloomberg set-to on Oct. 11 in New Hampshire! — it’s possible that further Perry slip-ups could create an opportunity.

While he and his team are almost certainly not looking beyond the primary at this point, it’s easy to imagine that some of Perry’s comments — Ponzi scheme, not able to be bought off for just $5,000 — have already made it into Democratic opposition research books for use in ads if and when he becomes the nominee.

That’s a fight for another day, however. At the moment, Perry seems to be skating by with GOP voters despite not standing out (in a good way) in either of the first two chances he’s had to debate his opponents.

It’s a lucky turn for Perry but one that might not last.

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