Republican presidential debate: The more he debates, the worse Rick Perry gets.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 23 2011 2:06 AM

Rick Rolled

The more Perry debates, the worse he gets.

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George Bush used to say to his political critics, "Don't judge my heart." Disagree, but don't question my motives. A lot of Republicans care about immigration. Many of them disagree with Perry. Many of them are in key electoral states like Iowa and Florida. Perry's steadfast position could win him points for sticking to his guns. But this answer offended people. Fox's Frank Luntz said that in the focus group he was running, the Republican voters turning dials to register their positive and negative reactions nearly turned them off their axles.

The Pakistan question Perry fielded was a slightly tricky one, as hypotheticals always are. Which is good: They let us see candidates' thinking. When Obama was asked an almost identical question in 2008 about whether he would send troops into Pakistan if he found that al-Qaida leaders were there, he said he would do so no matter what Pakistani officials thought. And as president, he did.

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Beyond the main event, which is to say the Perry-Romney battle, Rick Santorum was the best of the candidates. Michele Bachmann was a non-factor as Santorum took over her post as a strong voice for conservatives. He schooled Perry during the debate over in-state tuition breaks, arguing that the issue was not about compassion but fairness: Perry, he said, was subsidizing the children of undocumented workers over American citizens.

Romney, for his part, gave complete and strong answers, which were detailed and forceful. He didn't complain about gimmicky questions like "Is Barack Obama a socialist?," instead turning them aside and talking about an issue he wanted to talk about. He repeatedly returned to the need for strengthening the middle class, a general election pitch. (Earlier in the day he had made the case that he was more electable in an interview with USA Today, while Tim Pawlenty made the argument in Politico.) And a new poll in Florida showed that Romney does better against Obama than Perry. 

Nate Silver's analysis shows that since Perry started debating, his performance in the head-to-head match-ups against Obama has gotten worse. A CBS poll from last week shows that Republicans are split between wanting someone who shares their views and someone who can beat Obama. Will Republicans start changing their mind and focusing more on the general election in order to help them get over their qualms about Romney's conservative bona fides?

Going into the debate, Perry was showing himself to be the kind of conservative whom voters can connect with based on his background and worldview. He has been talking about how he was not born with "four aces in his hand." At the Faith and Freedom conference before the debate, he talked about prayer like no other candidate did. Romney's message to the same group had been about the economy. Perry's message: I'm one of you. Before the debate, the Perry campaign sent a press release titled "Middle Class Mitt," making fun of a gaffe earlier in the week when Romney, who is worth nearly $200 million, talked about being a member of the middle class. Message: He's not like you and me—and he's a phony, too.

The emotional connection Perry is trying to create is more powerful than the intellectual pitch Romney is making. That may allow Perry to weather his poor performance in this debate. Republican voters are still in the shopping stage. Perry can get back on track, but for now his debates are the un-Google: They raise more questions than they answer.

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