Orlando, Florida

Belinda Kapaun came to the Republican presidential confab in Orlando last Thursday wearing a Rick Perry sticker. She was not wearing it Friday.

“He was my number one,” she said the morning after the FoxNews/Google presidential debate here.

Perry lost Kapaun with a weak performance marked by misstatements of fact, missed opportunities, and general incoherence. “When he was talking to Mitt Romney there was a part of that​—​if you printed it, I don’t think it even made sense,” she says.

Here’s the botched (and obviously prepared) attack on Romney that Kapaun was referring to:

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 Roe v. Wade? Ah, he was for Race to the Top. He’s for Obamacare, and now he’s against it. I mean we’ll wait until tomorrow to see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.

Not strong. But it was Perry’s defending Texas’s policy of charging in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, and the insult he directed at the opponents of his position​—​“I don’t think you have a heart”​—​that proved decisive for Kapaun.

“He lost me with that one line.”

Myra Adams, a Florida media producer who worked on Republican presidential campaigns in Florida in 2004 and 2008, said that the energy and enthusiasm for Perry in the debate hall disappeared when he flubbed his attacks on Mitt Romney.

It has been clear for a long time that Florida would play a significant role in determining the next president of the United States. Florida may well be the most important state for winning the general election, and its early primary ensures that Republican voters here will have an outsize voice in determining the GOP nominee. But Perry’s poor performance in last week’s debate had many here wondering whether it could be a turning point in the GOP nomination process​—​even though it’s only September. Did the Orlando debate end the Perry surge and mark the beginning of a long and fatal Perry slide?

Perry supporters downplayed those concerns. One bad debate doesn’t end a candidacy, they reasonably say, and no one has ever claimed that Perry is strong in such a setting.

In a speech to the Florida Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Perry made a similar argument, saying voters don’t want “the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater” but a true conservative and a man of conviction.

He’s right. But Perry’s missteps were the kind that seemed to undermine his claim to be the candidate with those attributes. How often do conservatives criticize their opponents as having no heart? “That sounds like a compassionate conservative,” said Belinda Kapaun, her tone making clear that assessment was not a compliment.

At another point in the debate, Perry was asked how he would respond if he received the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call informing him that the Taliban had obtained nuclear weapons. He stumbled through a reference to the Haqqani network and shifted rather abruptly to India and Taiwan. His main point seemed to be something about the need for strong alliances​—​an odd comment given the inherent urgency of the situation as it was described to him​—​and a peculiar first instinct for a take-charge conservative.

Perry went quickly from noncandidate to frontrunner because he reflects, both temperamentally and ideologically, the energy of the base of the Republican party. He’s a conviction-driven, confrontational conservative at a time when most Republicans are in the mood for a fight about the size and scope of government. So when Perry horrifies the inside-the-B eltway set by saying Ben Bernanke would be “almost treasonous” if he played politics with the Fed or by calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, he endears himself to the very voters likely to determine the Republican nominee.

In that sense, he is the anti-Mitt Romney. The critique of Romney is that he’s a conservative of convenience, a poll-driven candidate whose decisions are based as much on political considerations as core values. When he needed to win in Massachusetts, he was a moderate. When he was the alternative to John McCain, he was an across-the-board conservative.

Perry came into the debate determined to deepen those suspicions about Romney. Instead, several Republicans at the Florida CPAC told me the next day that his uneven performance had driven them to reconsider Romney. L.W. Belanger, a movement conservative who grew up politically as an activist in Young Americans for Freedom, invoked the “Buckley Rule”​—​support the most conservative candidate who is electable​—​to suggest that Romney could end up being an acceptable option for conservatives.

He might be right. The day after the debate the head of FreedomWorks, a group that had previously promised to oppose a Romney nomination, told Jon Ward of the Huffington Post that Romney “has an opportunity to rehabilitate himself.”

The question is, does Perry?

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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