ORLANDO — Rick Perry’s loyalists warned from the very outset of his campaign for president that he was not a natural or skilled debater. After three GOP debates in 16 days, the Texas governor has proven them correct.
Debates will not determine the outcome of the contest for the Republican nomination. If debates were all that mattered, President Obama likely would not have become the Democratic nominee in 2008.
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.
There was no clearer case of that on Thursday than the portion of the Fox News-Google debate that dealt with immigration policy, an issue the Texas governor knows well.
Perry opposed a border fence, preferring other approaches to block the flow of illegal immigrants. He backed a program that would enable children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. Those positions may win plaudits from advocates of comprehensive immigration reform. But they will not satisfy the most conservative wing of the party, the very group that Perry might have assumed would be in his corner in the nomination battle.
Worse, Perry branded those who opposed the tuition program as heartless. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said.
Romney has led the onstage attacks against Perry, and that has helped to make the former Massachusetts governor a more effective debater. Romney won debates before Perry’s arrival largely by deflecting attacks from the other candidates or by staying above the fray as the others fought among themselves. Since Perry’s participation, Romney has come out ahead by becoming far more aggressive, by knowing his brief and by deflecting attacks.
On Thursday, Social Security was a principal point of contention between the two, and it illustrated Perry’s problems. The exchange was not the clear winner that Romney might have hoped, but that’s largely because Perry’s position remains something of a muddle. Perry still has some explaining to do on this.
In his book, “Fed Up,” Perry harshly attacked Social Security as a failed program that violates the Constitution. But his proposal for fixing it, to the degree that he has one, falls far short of what that earlier critique would call for. At this point, Perry is now trapped between the rhetoric in his book and the absence of a proposal for how to handle the program.
Equally notable is that some of the other candidates have been just as skilled at making Perry appear uncomfortable. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum stood toe-to-toe with Perry on Thursday as they argued immigration policy. Fellow Texan Ron Paul has hit him on economic policy.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), whose candidacy has been most hurt by Perry’s entry, has kept him on the defensive over his advocacy of mandatory vaccinations for young girls to prevent the spread of a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
Perry’s candidacy is still in the early stages, and there’s much campaigning ahead. There will be other debates in October and November and adequate time to prepare for them. The nomination calendar still offers the opportunity for a quick start against Romney.
Given doubts about Romney and more serious questions about the others in the current field, all that provides Perry every opportunity to do what his supporters believe he is capable of doing. But after a quick start, the Texas governor now faces a time of real testing.