Can Texas Gov. Rick Perry handle a free-for-all?

In last week’s Washington Post-Bloomberg debate, the Texas governor managed not to make any major gaffes, as the questions were limited to the economy, an issue on which Perry has both experience and positions within GOP orthodoxy.

But in previous debates, Perry was dogged by questions (and attacks from his rivals) on Pakistan, Social Security and immigration. In Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas, Perry will again have to take questions on a wide range of subjects, providing another test of his knowledge of policy issues and ability to respond quickly, two traits that have helped former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney be perceived as the “winner” of most of the debates.

Perry aides have argued that media attention aside, the debates won’t ultimately determine who wins the GOP primary. They acknowledge Perry has struggled in some of the sessions, but call them “a fraction” of the primary process.

When voters show up for the Iowa caucuses in January, Perry’s aides may be proved correct. But for now, Perry donors and supporters outside of his Austin-based campaign operation privately say they would love to see the Texas governor perform better in these televised head-to-heads between the candidates.

Perry may have a real opportunity on Tuesday. The moderators and other candidates are likely to focus their questions on businessman Herman Cain and Romney, the pair at the top of the most recent polls of the GOP field. And Perry seems to have honed his arguments on immigration and Social Security.

After earlier casting opponents of giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants as heartless, Perry has shifted to arguing this policy will eventually improve the Texas economy by helping create a more educated workforce. And he has stopped talking about creating state-based retirement programs to replace Social Security and now is calling for raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for upper-income retirees, the same positions Romney offers when asked about the issue.


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