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

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Sept. 23 2011 2:06 AM

Rick Rolled

The more Perry debates, the worse he gets.

Republican presidential candidates, (L-R) Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answer questions during the Fox News/Google GOP Debate. Click image to expand.
Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney at Thursday's debate

The Republican presidential debate in Orlando was sponsored by Google, but it was Gov. Rick Perry who was searching. The frontrunner's answers meandered. When fielding a hypothetical question about terrorists getting nukes in Pakistan, his response ribboned out like he was reading the first search results to come up. Even when he read his attack lines on rival Mitt Romney from the notes on his lectern, it was muddy. This was Perry's third debate this campaign; with each successive one, his performance gets worse.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The race between the Republican frontrunners has been between electability and authenticity. "Paint Creek" Perry is one of you—he prays, he speaks plainly, he's from a small town in Texas—and Moneybags Mitt ain't. Romney's pitch: He can beat President Obama, whereas Perry is too reckless. At the debate, Perry not only failed to make the case about Romney's essential phoniness, he turned the weapon on himself (Perry-kiri?), creating several self-inflicted wounds to the heart of his authenticity pitch.

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The first wound came at the start. Romney and Perry got into a pushy book club debate, pointing to what the other had or had not written in their books and what lines each was pretending they'd never written at all. Romney continued his assault on Perry's plan for letting the states run Social Security. Perry said he'd never suggested that for the larger Social Security system, but merely for state employees. This isn't so. He was talking about the larger program not just in his book, but also since the book was published and since this campaign started.

Perry has made his comments on Social Security a symbol of how candid and authentic he is. At the last debate, he ducked the question of returning the retirement program to the states. For this debate, he constructed a diversion—a net reduction in honesty from his previous (less than straightforward) position. "There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business," Romney said. "You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."

Perry evacuated the topic and sprinted for safer ground. He pointed out that Romney had changed the wording on health care in his book in between the hardcover and paperback editions. The changes were made to remove any suggestions that Romney once favored making his Massachusetts plan a national plan. It seemed like a good line of attack, aiming at people's doubts about Romney's core, but he got tangled. He tried again later to raise Romney's position changes, but instead of showing an instinct for the jugular, he became a word juggler:

I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it—was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he's for Obamacare, and now he's against it. I mean, we'll wait until tomorrow and—and—and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight.

Romney, whose answers were crisp and commanding throughout the night, showed again the benefit of having run before. He turned around the attacks on his record as a shape-shifter and made himself seem resolute. "My positions are laid out in that book. I stand by them. Governor Perry, you wrote a book six months ago. You're already retreating from the positions that were in that book."

The second problem for Perry came when defending himself against his executive order requiring sixth grade girls receive the HPV vaccine. He said he had been lobbied on the issue by a 31-year-old woman dying of cervical cancer. It was a rhetorical island of success in the stormy weather. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer singled it out as the governor's best moment. But Perry has a problem. He met with the woman after he made the decision to put the executive order in place. So it couldn't have influenced his decision, as he suggested in the debate.

The final problem for Perry came at another defensive moment. Talking about his decision to allow the children of undocumented workers to get cheaper in-state tuition, he said anyone who says the state should not educate these children "who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart."

Did you mean: I don't think you have a heart problem?

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.

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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