Perry was clearly off his game during the tea party debate. He looked uncomfortable, his face was strained, his combativeness was muted. He looked to me like a man with back pain. I wondered if he were wearing a brace. I’ve had back surgery, and it hurt to watch him.
I thought Romney won the debate. He took it to Perry from the outset, and he went for the intimidation play, staring his rival in the face as Perry gave his answers. Perry stumbled several times. I think of him as someone who has a great feel for his constituency, but I don’t know how anyone could have had a feeling for that constituency. That was one scary audience. Perry muffed the border fence question, muffed the dream act question (though his answers were sincere and courageous, and I agree with him in both cases). I thought he muffed Bachmann’s attack on the HPV question too, saying that he raised $30 million and he couldn’t be bought for $5,000. Croney capitalism is going to stick to Perry. There are too many instances–Harold Simmons and the nuclear waste dump, Bob Perry and the Residential Construction Commission, recipients of emerging technology grants, fund managers who got to invest teacher retirement money. It is a rich lode, and it is going to be mined by his enemies.
He just wasn’t presidential. He was low-energy and the feistiness wasn’t there. That’s why I’m wondering whether the back operation didn’t go well, or whether he got irked because Bachmann got to his right on the HPV issue. Another explanation could be that Perry has been around so long and has been so successful in politics that our expectations are high, and they are hard to meet. He just didn’t seem presidential, and I think the reason was that he was hurting.
Romney is clearly going to zero in on Perry’s jobs-creation record. It is one thing for Perry to say that jobs is his first priority, and quite another for him to say that he is responsible for the state’s performance. (During the 2010 governor’s race, Bill White kept insisting that Perry was claiming credit for jobs that White had created as mayor of Houston. Perry got the better of that argument, but White had a point. Perry does go to New York and California to recruit companies to come to Texas, and he deserves credit for that, but Texas is a very big state, and, as Romney pointed out in the first debate, it has oil and gas. The oil boom in South Texas is humongous, perhaps the biggest ever seen in the lower 48, and it has a huge ripple effect throughout the economy. All the work takes place out in the countryside; the local hardware store supplies plates, utensils, and portable stoves for three meals a day; the grocery store sells the food; the beer distributor stocks the local tavern; manual laborers work on the pipelines; truck drivers haul the oil to the distribution point and take away the brine. The economic activity is phenomenal. Perry reaps the political benefit of the jobs, but they have little to do with his policies. It’s the oil, stupid.
What saved Perry tonight were subpar performances from the remainder of the field. Ron Paul drew applause when he objected to the cost of foreign wars, Bachmann had her moments but couldn’t exploit them to the fullest; Huntsman didn’t live up to his performance level in the first debate; Cain and Santorum are bit players; Gingrich is the veteran who stayed too long. Perry still leads the field, but he has enough moderate positions from his days as a conservative Democrat that the weirdos in the audience booed him from time to time.
The debate over social security was not nearly so vigorous as it was during the first debate. Perry’s handlers had rather brilliantly defused the issue with an op-ed piece in USAToday in which Perry, or somebody, said social security needed to be fixed. Perry didn’t mention the P-word, and he stuck to his argument that the fix was personal accounts for younger workers. It was uninspiring.
The big question mark for me is Perry’s health. Tonight was one of those rare moments when the camera didn’t love him. He has plenty of time to get back on his game, assuming that his physical condition holds up. But I am beginning to wonder whether he will have the stamina to hold up to the demands of a grueling campaign if his back is injured. For now, that’s just as big a threat as Romney is.