But if some Perry supporters hoped that he could put distance between himself and his rivals and quickly stamp himself as the clear favorite to win the nomination, the debates have done the opposite. His performances have put obstacles in his path and have raised questions about his preparation to be president.
The debates have left him in an uncomfortable place — neither polished and presidential enough for those in the party hierarchy who are looking for someone with the skills and appeal to defeat Obama, nor so passionately and consistently conservative to satisfy or energize tea party activists who could play a crucial role in the nomination battle.
When Perry entered the race last month, he quickly shot to the top of the national polls. But that was based on little information about who Perry was or what kind of candidate he might be. His surge reflected unease within the party with Mitt Romney, who had been atop the field all year, and the general state of fluidity in a party still looking for a real leader.
On paper, Perry seemed to be what many Republicans were looking for: handsome, comfortable with the retail campaign demands of presidential politics, surrounded by a team of loyal advisers who had proven, in Texas at least, to be tough operators. His call for diminishing Washington’s power had struck a chord long before he got serious about running for the White House.
Most presidential candidates have months to hone their skills. Perry has been on Broadway from the moment he announced. His past writings, prepared before he thought seriously about running, have left him vulnerable to criticism. His chance to make a positive impression has come almost entirely through high-profile debates, and that has not served him well.
Perry left the convention center in Orlando Thursday night facing the same question about his candidacy that greeted him on the day he entered the race: Can he live up to the high expectations?
The commentary on Friday morning was harsh. Pete Wehner, a conservative veteran of George W. Bush’s White House, put it this way: “Perry has had three debates. His first was mediocre. His second debate performance was weaker than his first, and last night’s debate was worse than either of the first two.…He comes across as unprepared, sometimes, unsteady, and at times his answers border on being incoherent.”
That’s only one person’s view, and it’s more bluntly critical of Perry’s overall performances than some others might judge. Still, others gave Perry mixed reviews, at best.
Perry has been the center of attention at all three debates but has yet to dominate or score a clean victory. Given his standing in the polls, he has been the obvious target for his rivals. They have put him on the defensive repeatedly. Sometimes he has stood his ground effectively. At other times, in keeping firm, he has put himself at risk.