The shift in the atmospheric pressure that took place on the evening of September 22 could be felt all the way from Orlando to Austin. That was the night Governor Rick Perry had his near-death debate experience, the moment at which the air began to leak out of his 27-year political winning streak. In a matter of hours, the longest-serving and most powerful governor in Texas history was revealed to be, well, mortal. Or worse. “It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him,” conservative stalwart William Kristol pronounced. Brit Hume, of Fox News, observed that Perry “really did throw up all over himself at the debate.” At the New York Times, Gail Collins noted that “it was impossible to watch that debate without realizing that Perry is not presidential timber, or even presidential polyurethane.”
So began what can charitably be called Rick Perry’s “bad run.” As the criticisms mounted, so too did the justifications for the governor’s woeful performance. We were told that Perry’s then six-week-old campaign was still finding its footing. He was too focused on fund-raising. He was still recovering from his July back surgery. But the most likely explanation is also the most ironic: Perry had been so easily routing his opposition back home that he was out of practice. As King of Texas, he’d been able to avoid or ignore hostile audiences, nosy newspaper editorial boards, and anyone else who didn’t think he was such hot stuff, including the entire Texas Democratic party. He’d debated John Sharp exactly once when competing against him for lieutenant governor in 1998, and Bill White not at all in 2010, with a lot of pretty mediocre performances in between. None of which ever hurt him—until now. Perry, who has excelled at grinding Democrats under his boot heels, suddenly looked like a victim of his own success.
The governor, a famous jogger, just can’t get a political workout in Austin. Consider congressman Lloyd Doggett’s declaration in early August, just as Perry was preparing to announce his candidacy,