There’s just no getting around it: Rick Perry’s inept performances are dominating these debates. The highlight, or perhaps the lowlight, of tonight’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire was a direct question to Perry about health care, in which he managed to avoid taking a single shot at Mitt Romney. But throughout the debate, he went back and forth between garbling his answers and simply disappearing for large stretches. He showed up for a debate on the economy with nothing to say on the economy other than that his economic plan wasn’t ready yet, and apparently he decided to avoid his difficulty in delivering prepared zingers by not bothering to even try any. Just incredible.

Debates, and debate performances, are generally not nearly as important as they’re often made out to be, but Perry is apparently guaranteed to launch a huge dark cloud over his candidacy every time he gets together with the rest of the gang. Even if everything else were going well for him, it might just be too much to overcome.

The rest of the debate? Doesn’t much matter, really. Ezra Klein tweeted at one point that Romney is “extraordinarily good at these debates,” but I don’t think that’s right; he’s just a solid major leaguer playing against a bunch of sandlot kids. Oh, they each have their strengths: Herman Cain is actually pretty funny, and remains good at sticking to his prepared lines most of the time (although he took a bad stumble by praising Alan Greenspan, something that will give those who want to get rid of him a good opportunity to do so). Ron Paul is a pro at what he does, as is Newt Gingrich; it’s just that those things don’t have much to do with being a potential nominee of the Republican Party. At any rate, none of them – Paul, Gingrich, Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman – has any significant chance of winning the nomination.

Despite Perry’s performances, I’ll continue to believe it’s way too early to conclude he can’t win. Hey, he’s just lowering expectations for the next one! As Nate Silver wrote earlier today, Perry still has most of what made him a strong candidate six weeks ago. We still don’t know that Romney is acceptable to much of the party -- either party actors or rank-and-file voters -- and if he’s not, someone else has to be the nominee, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else out there.

Still, I don’t recall anyone who otherwise had a legitimate chance to win a nomination doing this badly in debates. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching and deciding to invest in that. Regardless: Whatever its importance, it really is something to watch.

More on the debate from PostOpinions

Rubin: Romney laps the field

Dionne: Romney is in command now

Cohen: Will Romney remain the top dog?

Petri: Just nominate Mitt Romney, already

Stromberg: GOP candidates spinning on ideology