Last night's debate in Orlando was a tough night for GOP Presidential primary front-runner Rick Perry. In what many influential observers are saying was a damaging performance for Perry, the narrative coming out of last night is that Perry's late entrance onto the stage has left him unprepared for the unforgiving glare of the national spotlight.
While other candidates have had months, if not years, to craft policy papers and canned responses, Perry's late-in-the-game arrival has left him little time to get up to speed. This left Perry in awkward contrast to Mitt Romney, who may be the most practiced primary debater in the modern era. Not only has Romney been running for President more or less since 2007, but he has participated in more nationally televised GOP Presidential primary debates than any other candidate in American history.
Over the course of those multitude of lightning rounds, Youtube questions and 30 second rebuttals, Romney has honed his game to a level that far surpasses anyone else on stage. Perry may catch up quickly — he has a few weeks before the next encounter — but last night displayed the built-in advantages Romney has this go-round.
The unlikeable stiff who seemed smarmy when on the attack in 2008 has been replaced by a man who, while he can't float like a butterfly, has learned to sting like a bee. In landing a number of upper cuts to Perry, without earning the ire of the audience, Romney proved he's going to be a far more difficult opponent in debates than many were expecting.
Last night's debate also made clear how much of a two-man race the primary has become.
Once a top tier contender, Michele Bachmann barely registered at the debate. As Politico's Molly Ball notes, she barely got mentioned in the Fox focus group after the debate. While she had her strong moments on immigration, she was not exhilarating as she was in her first debate, and her HPV answer will not quiet the controversy surrounding her repeating widely debunked claims of the vaccine causing mental retardation.
Even worse for Bachmann's prospects, Rick Santorum outshone her at nearly every turn.
In many ways, Santorum took the baton from Bachmann as the conservative firebrand candidate. He also demonstrated that he is a far more serious, eloquent and knowledgeable speaker on many issues from Iran to immigration than pundits have previously acknowledged. His attacks on Perry's immigration positions, including in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, will leave some serious scars.
If Matt Drudge, who is widely seen as pro-Romney, is to be believed, Perry's response that opponents of his tuition policy "have no heart" could be the most damaging aspect of last night's debate. Drudge goes so far as to allude to the damage done by linking to Politico’s piece entitled “Texas toast?” Immigration isn't nearly the issue it was in the 2008 primary, but it nonetheless is an issue where Perry does not find himself aligned with the conservative, primary-voting base.
Newt Gingrich also turned in a surprisingly strong performance, bringing out a side that many observers thought would have made him a serious contender for the nomination had it come out earlier. A man of towering intellect, and a number of balanced federal budgets under his leadership as Speaker, Gingrich is an impressive figure. The crowd loved him and he showed why he is the "ideas man" in the Republican Party. While many folks thought his anti-Ryan budget comments would doom his standing with conservatives, this debate performance went a long way in rebuilding Gingrich's relationship with the right.
Beyond Santorum and Gingrich's strong performances, every other candidate on stage matters less every debate, and this one was no different. Though some of them got hilarious one liners off — like Gary Johnson's joke about his neighbor's dog creating more shovel-ready projects than Obama — they were just that, one liners. At this point, those one liners and quick takes from candidates like Herman Cain are still appreciated. All of them, save for anything Jon Huntsman says.
When will he get the hint that no one likes him?
The truth is, right now, only two candidates have a viable path to the nomination. In the Perry v Romney race, last night's debate did not fall in Perry's favor.
His inability to hit Romney on his well defined record of flip-flops was truly baffling. The "Flip Flop Flub," as the Weekly Standard put it, is giving people who prefer Perry to Romney some pause. Some are even comparing it to Pawlenty's Obamneycare attack pull-back. You can be sure the Texas Governor will not make that mistake again next debate.
Before we go too far breathlessly recounting the damage done at the debate to Perry's candidacy, it's important to remember debates aren't everything. Conservative activists are still not totally comfortable with Mitt Romney, nor has Romney fully dealt with the albatross that is Romneycare.
But it's hard to have watched last night's debate and not wonder if maybe Rick Perry got in too late. While possessing an incomparable job creation record in Texas and a history of conservative leadership, there really is no preparation for running for President other than running for President.
Every other candidate has had the opportunity to make their rookie mistakes either away from the spotlight, or in Romney's case, a few years ago. Perry has no such leeway. If he doesn't turn in a vastly different performance at the next debate, he could be in serious trouble.
But as Tim Pawlenty showed, sometimes the next debate cannot come soon enough.