Texas Gov. Rick Perry rocketed to the top of the field after he jumped in the race for the GOP nomination for president last month.
His early rise in the polls was based on what Republican voters thought they knew about him. But the debates gave Republicans a chance to see Perry in action — and the normally aggressive Texas governor has been forced into the uncomfortable position of defense.
"No other candidate ... has the record that I have," he said last weekend in Michigan. "Yep, there may be slicker candidates and there may be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in."
A Wobbly Debate Performance
There were three key moments in last week's Orlando, Fla., debate where Perry undercut himself. The first came when he defended his support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants:
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," he said.
Calling people who disagree with you heartless is not a great way to win their votes. And Perry has since acknowledged that was a poor choice of words.
But that wasn't Perry's only problem in the Orlando debate. He also seemed unprepared when asked a predictable foreign-policy question about what he'd do if Pakistan's nuclear weapons fell into the wrong hands:
"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 Adm. 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."
And when he tried to attack Mitt Romney with a list of well-known flip-flops, he seemed tongue-tied:
"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 these social programs, from the standpoint of, he was for standing up for Roe vs. Wade before he was against, verse — Roe vs. Wade?"
A Rick Perry Problem
Perry's unsteady performance set many Republicans to wondering whether he was ready for a presidential campaign or, for that matter, the White House.
Bruce Keough is a Republican activist who had been Romney's New Hampshire state chairman in 2008. But he publicly broke with Romney earlier this year and was looking for another candidate to support. He said he was interested in Perry.
"With Perry," Keough said before the Orlando debate, "I'm looking for that reassurance, that message to the voters that, 'Yeah, I call them like I see them, and I've said some things when I'm making speeches and writing books that might give you pause, but I'm not going to be a president you have to worry about. I'm not going to drop the ball on the 5-yard line.' "
After the debate, Keough said Perry's performance was not reassuring.
"I have serious concerns that he may be someone who's going to drop the ball after watching him in Orlando," he said.
So what does Perry do now? Advice, of course, is plentiful. Republican consultant Alex Castellanos worked for Romney in 2008 and for one of Perry's opponents in the 2006 Texas governor's race.
"Rick Perry's never won races in Texas because he's loved or because he's eloquent," Castellanos says. "He's won races because he rips his opponents' lungs out."
And that's what Castellanos thinks Perry should do now: Attack Barack Obama, showing Republicans how he'd fight the main event. But between now and then, he has to attack Romney — and Castellanos says that could be risky.
"What it might do is strengthen Romney," he says, "because if Romney sits there imperturbable, unflappably cool and keeps on going, this may be what Mitt Romney needs."
Most Republicans agree that Perry doesn't have a Romney problem — he has a Perry problem. Florida Republican strategist Eric Eikenberg says Perry needs to remind Republicans what they liked about him in the first place — that he's a strong conservative, an evangelical Christian with a Texas record to boast about.
"He's the only governor in this country that can actually say that he's been a job creator, his state's been a job creator during this recession. And that's a message that is resonating with voters," Eikenberg says.
He says it's still early enough for Perry to refocus. And Perry will have plenty of opportunities: He's campaigning in New Hampshire this weekend, and then on Oct. 11, he'll be back in Romney's backyard for another debate.