Rick Perry is quickly becoming an afterthought

It didn't even feel like he was trying on Tuesday night. Does he want the right to fall in love with Herman Cain?

Topics: Opening Shot, War Room, 2012 Elections,

Rick Perry is quickly becoming an afterthoughtRepublican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (Credit: AP/Melina Mara)

It was a new, more difficult challenge that Rick Perry faced in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday night: Find a way to stand out. And he failed.

Until recently, attracting attention was hardly a concern for the Texas governor. He burst into the GOP race in mid-August with all the eyes in the political world on him – and with conservatives poised to flock to his camp, if he could prove he was the skilled, electable candidate they badly wanted him to be.

Perry responded by doing virtually everything in his power to show that he wasn’t ready for the national spotlight, talking his way into trouble on the campaign trail, antagonizing conservatives who questioned his record on immigration, and turning in three increasingly ghastly debate performances that culminated in his painful attempt to confront Mitt Romney in the last debate, on Sept. 22.

Measured against that last outing, Perry’s showing in Hanover wasn’t actually that bad. The problem, though, is that the standard Perry needs to meet in debates changed over the last three weeks. “Not bad” might have cut it before, when conservatives were all looking to him to deliver them from the inevitability of Romney, but three weeks of deteriorating poll numbers and scathing reviews from Republican opinion-leaders have taken their toll.

By the time Tuesday’s debate rolled around, Perry had plummeted to third place in national polls, overtaken not just by Romney but by Herman Cain too, and his standing in Iowa and New Hampshire had plunged to even lower depths. The organizers in Hanover took note of this and swapped the seating around, putting Cain center stage next to Romney and moving Perry toward the periphery with the rest of the also-rans.

Hence the more complicated challenge for Perry. This time around, the action wasn’t going to automatically come to him. He would be handed fewer opportunities to speak, forced into a secondary slot in the question rotation, and subject to less attention from his rivals. This is the treatment that candidates who are polling at 4 percent in New Hampshire and 9 percent in Iowa receive. It would be up to Perry to make the most of the moments he was given and to force the moderators – and his opponents – to pay him more attention.

Subtracting for commercials (and a ridiculous “halftime show” with former Bush aide Matthew Dowd), the debate ran about 90 minutes, and for almost all of that time it didn’t even feel like Perry was there. Especially in the first hour, the gaps between his opportunities to speak were endless, with Perry more often showing up on the screen in the background while one of his opponents was talking. And when he was actually called on, he did nothing to help himself, issuing dull, vague responses that seemed designed mainly to run out the clock.

Perry’s handling of the first question posed to him, about what he would do as president to break through Washington’s gridlock and improve the economy, was typical of his night. He simply noted that he’d issue a plan later in the week – he’s scheduled to give a speech on the economy on Friday – and made some generic comments about domestic energy sources. Moderator Charlie Rose observed that Romney long ago offered a 59-point economic plan and challenged Perry to be more specific. Perry simply noted that Romney has been running for president for several years, “and I’ve only been at this for about eight weeks.”

The lack of preparation, to say nothing of Perry’s limited agility, was staggering. The sole topic for the debate was the economy, and Perry was surely aware of how high the stakes were for his candidacy. And yet all he could say was that he’d soon have a plan?

Meanwhile, Romney spent the night confidently and energetically plowing through his familiar denunciations of Barack Obama, promoting himself as a savvy businessman come to rescue America from the Great Recession. And Cain, with similar confidence and energy, returned over and over to his “999” tax plan, eliciting frequent cheers from the crowd. In fact, at one point Rose even played a clip of Cain talking up his trademark plan and asked the other candidates to respond. The best Perry could muster was that “what we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we’re going to have this policy or that policy.” He never seemed so small and insignificant.

The best news for Perry is that this was probably the least-watched GOP debate yet, airing on Bloomberg television (and a broadcast station in New Hampshire). But the GOP’s opinion-shaping class surely tuned in, and Perry gave them no reason to declare his candidacy reborn – even as Romney gave them further reason to call him the front-runner, and Cain gave them plenty of reason for them to say he’s for real.

It’s true that Perry still has a ton of money and that in the volatile environment of the current GOP race he could still reverse his fortunes with a strong performance in the next debate (which will be next week). It’s also true that Cain has essentially no campaign organization, has barely paid attention to the early primary and caucus states, is living almost entirely off media attention and buzz right now, and has yet to face a concerted assault on the 999 plan from his rivals (it’s coming, though). Given the GOP base’s resistance to him, it’s hard to imagine Romney just walking off with this race by default; someone’s going to emerge and give him a run, and it still could be Perry.

But it doesn’t have to be, and Tuesday night provided the best reason yet to doubt that it will be. Perry just doesn’t seem capable of performing well in these settings. He’s now shared the stage with his opponents four times, and each time he’s walked away with his stature reduced. In the three previous debates, he delivered performances that were simply unworthy of a front-runner. At least on Tuesday, he delivered one more on par with his poll numbers.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>