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Rick Perry looks worse with each debate, but the GOP campaign is still young

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 23, 2011 10:52 AM

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Like the Republican crack about the best way to end up with a small fortune in Barack Obama’s economy (“start out with a large fortune”), it is becoming increasingly clear that the best way for Rick Perry to cling to a narrow lead in the GOP presidential competition is to go into these televised debates with a wide lead.

Yesterday’s event in Orlando was the third presidential debate the Texas governor has taken part in, and his performance has grown weaker each time. He seemed especially unprepared and unfocused last night. The very first question — a softball about how to encourage more small businesses to hire — was one that Perry, whose state has generated more new jobs in recent years than any other, should have been ready to blast out of the park. Yet when moderator Bret Baier asked him directly, “Where is your jobs plan?” Perry lamely responded by promising a “more extensive” plan down the road.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, seems to grow stronger and more sure-footed with each debate. His answers last night were confident and clear, and he swatted away Perry’s jabs with almost Reaganesque composure. “Nice try,” he replied, unruffled, when Perry said Republicans would have to “wait until tomorrow to see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.” The former Massachusetts governor has run for president before, and it shows — for example, in the way he sidestepped Megyn Kelly’s question about whether he believes President Obama is a socialist. Rather than label Obama with the S-word — a reply that might have pleased the crowd in the Orlando Convention Center, but would have done him no good in the wider world of a general election campaign — Romney reached for a different label. “The title that I want to hear said about President Obama,” he answered to cheers and applause, “is former President Barack Obama. That’s the title I want to hear.”

If the conventional wisdom is right, the GOP nomination will come down to a fight between Romney and Perry. But there were moments last night when some of the other candidates on that crowded stage showed flashes of the right stuff.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, for example, was alone in arguing for the projection of US military power as a tool of US leadership in the world. Asked whether he would send troops back to Iraq if the security situation in the region were to fall apart after 2012, he replied without hesitation: “I’m not for taking them out of the region.” The isolationism of Texas Rep. Ron Paul may appeal to a segment of the GOP base, but Santorum is not shy about articulating a more muscular Republican philosophy. “When we engage in Iraq and Afghanistan, we engage because we want to be successful. We want victory... We are not on a political agenda to withdraw troops. The first thing is to make sure that we secure success.”

Particularly impressive to my mind was Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. Warm, engaging, well-spoken, he made the most of his limited access to the spotlight.

Asked how he would handle a Palestinian declaration of statehood, Cain said his message to the Arab world would be: “If you mess with Israel, you’re messing with the United States of America.” As a survivor of colon and liver cancer, he explained with particular authority why he so strongly opposes the Obama health-care law: “I was able to get the necessary CAT scan tests, go to the necessary doctors, get a second opinion, get chemotherapy, get surgery, recuperate from surgery, get more chemotherapy — all in a span of nine months,” Cain said. “If we had been under Obamacare and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan — that would have delayed my treatment. I was able get the treatment as fast as I could, based upon my timetable and not the government’s timetable. That’s what saved my life.”

Months still remain before the first primary votes are cast, and it would be a mistake to make too much of these debates. The smart money says Romney or Perry will be the nominee in 2012, but would you bet the house on it? In the final moments of the program last night, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman pointed out that four years ago at this point, the Republican presidential frontrunners were Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Sic transit gloria mundi.

AP Photo/John Raoux: Republican presidential candidates prior to their debate last night in Orlando.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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