We’ve had two debates now. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has shown flashes of wit. He can turn a phrase. But he also has repeatedly seemed taken aback by an obvious attack. He has not yet explained how his Texas accomplishments will translate into reform policies and a working relationship with an often incompliant Congress. It’s not like he doesn’t know what is coming his way, yet his performances suggest a lack of attention to debate readiness.

Byron York spotted this phenomenon as well: “He was at times hesitant, forced off his game by Romney, Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum, and perhaps in need of more preparation. It’s likely he’ll do a little more studying for the next debate, presented by Fox News, on September 22.”

At times Perry’s considerable ego gets him in trouble.When slammed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) for his close connection with a donor who happened to be a executive for Merck that manufactured the HPV vaccine, Perry shot back, “If you’re saying I can be bought by $5,000, I’m offended.” It was a perfectly preposterous response, especially considering he’s received far more than $5,000 from a slew of donors who wound up with plum appointments in his administration. It is the kind of bravado that works in Texas, but not on the national scene. Didn’t he have a better explanation for that issue?

Because much of the material Perry is now dealing with is new to him he sometimes slips, revealing his lack of mastery over the subject matter. There was this exchange concerning Afghanistan:

HUNTSMAN: We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan nation- building at a time when this nation needs to be built. We are of no value to the rest of the world if our core is crumbling, which it is in this country.

I like those days when Ronald Reagan — you talked about — when Ronald Reagan would ensure that the light of this country would shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights, and free markets. We’re not shining like we used to shine. We need to shine again.

And I’m here to tell you, Sahar, when we start shining again, it’s going to help the women of Afghanistan, along with any other NGO work that can be done there and the collaborative efforts of great volunteer efforts here in the United States. We can get it done, but we have to make sure that the Afghan people increasingly take responsibility for their security going forward.


BLITZER: Very quickly, to Governor Perry, $2 billion a week, is that money well spent by U.S. taxpayers in Afghanistan?

PERRY: Well, I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it’s also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don’t think so at this particular point in time.
I think the best way for us to be able to impact that country is to make a transition to where that country’s military is going to be taking care of their people, bring our young men and women home, and continue to help them build the infrastructure that we need, whether it’s schools for young women like yourself or otherwise. [Emphasis added.]

It was as if Perry forgot that he is supposed to be the hawk, not the isolationist. The answer suggests that the America military is simply delivering aid, not fighting the terrorists and those who support them. The answer was, frankly, nearly unintelligible.

Perry hadn’t envisioned running for president. He has had a short time to prepare. But if his base of knowledge is slight and he knows the lines of attack from his opponents, why aren’t the answers better? Perhaps he is not preparing. Maybe his team is not candid enough with him about his performances. Possibly, he misjudged the requirements of the debate and mistakenly believed all he had to do was recite Texas’s job record. (Even there, the accounting of the higher job creation rate under his predecessors took some of the luster off his strongest asset.)

By now it should be clear to him that he can’t wing these debates and that the expectations for a presidential contender are much higher than those for a gubernatorial race in a Republican dominated state. Perry will not put donors and voters at ease until he shows a willingness and ability to demonstrate he understands the issues, can formulate forward-looking policies and will not be swayed by whomever he spoke to last on foreign policy. He can do it, but he better get cracking.