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.

You Might Also Like

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
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • 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>