GOP Debate: Perry Tried, and Failed, to Wing It

He gave rambling answers and stumbled over even his best attack lines

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Rick Perry was so bad in Thursday's Republican debate that one of his second-tier rivals isn't bothering to be gracious about it just in case he wins. "Perry was off his game, big time," Rick Santorum told the Washington Examiner's Byron York after the debate. "Or maybe that is his game." Though the Texas governor started the night strong, he lost his energy -- or forgot what he studied, and he "at times appeared to be drugged," New York's Jonathan Chait says. But it's not just opponents and liberals who think he did poorly -- a post-debate focus group led by Frank Luntz on Fox showed several voters switching from Perry to Mitt Romney. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol said it was "close to a disqualifying two hours" for Perry. At Fox News, Rich Lowry says the performance "will stoke more speculation" that someone better will get in the race.

What did Perry do so wrong? He looked like a kid who hadn't done his homework. On lines of attack that he'd clearly rehearsed, he stumbled. Lowry writes, "His signature moment of the night came when he teed up what was supposed to be a devastating indictment of Mitt Romney's flip-flops and get lost somewhere in the middle and barely made it out the other side." Here's the actual transcript of what Perry said:
"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 first -- Roe v. Wade? He was -- uh --- 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."
Video of the rambling word scramble, to which, unfortunately, this YouTube user has added the Godfather theme:

You can actually see Perry trying to remember his lines at 0:32.

He likewise gave a rambling answer on what he'd do if he got a call, as president, at 3:00a.m. saying Pakistan had lost a nuclear missile:
Well obviously, before you ever get to that point you have to build a relationship in that region. That's one of the things that this administration has not done. Yesterday, we found out through Admiral Mullen that Haqqani has been involved with -- and that's the terrorist group directly associated with --  the Pakistani -- country. So to have a relationship with India, to make sure that India knows that they are an ally of the United States. For instance, when we had the opportunity to sell India the upgraded F-16's, we chose not to do that. We did the same with Taiwan. The point is, our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends, we will be standing by there with them. 
Today, we don't have those allies in that region that can assist us if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality.
As NBC News' Chuck Todd and Mark Murray write, "better relations with India is the way to keep Pakistani nukes out of the hands of terrorists; huh?"
Perry also appears to believe he's so charming he can insult Republican voters to their faces and they'll like it. In defending a Texas law that gives illegal immigrants in-state college tuition, he said of people who didn't want to educate blameless children "I don't think you have a heart." And as the Los Angeles TimesAndrew Malcolm points out, Perry annoyed the Orlando crowd when Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Texas was beating his state in attracting jobs and Perry responded, "We plan to keep it that way, Rick."  Booing ensued.
Politico's Jonathan Martin and James Hohmann argue that Perry just got into the race too late and therefore didn't have time to learn everything he needed to be sharp in the debates. Todd and Murray note that while primary debate winners don't win the nomination very often, "The bad news, however, is that his past three debates haven't given establishment Republicans (especially key donors) the confidence that he’s their guy." Establishment Republicans like Kristol, say, who titled his debate column "Yikes" and launched into another appeal New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to get in the race. (Though Kristol might not have persuaded Christie here given he delivered his argument with a fat joke: "He is, in every sense, a big man for a big job.")
Still, Chait isn't convinced Perry is toast.
In general, Romney took his weak hand and played it far better than Perry, who at times appeared to be drugged, and perhaps is still suffering from a recovery from back surgery. But though Romney won most exchanges on a question-by-question basis, Perry probably emerged with the stronger meta-theme. His overarching condemnation of Romney is as a slippery, quasi-Democratic figure. Romney has nothing anywhere near so strong to deploy against Perry. He has tried, elliptically, to paint his foe as unelectable. But the deeper Romney expresses contempt for Obama -- tonight he accused him of never having held a job -- the harder it must be for Republican voters to imagine that any nominee would actually lose to this unemployed, socialist, America-hating failure.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.