"Debates are not my strong suit," Texas governor Rick Perry conceded, in a bit of an understatement, while talking to reporters after Tuesday night's GOP presidential debate at Dartmouth College. "But you know we get up and do 'em and we just try to let people see our passion."
Perry's debate performance was not disastrous like the September 22 showing in Florida that sent him spiraling downward in the polls. But it wasn't close to what he needed to bounce back. Mitt Romney and Herman Cain dominated the debate Tuesday evening, with Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann offering flashes of wit and intelligence. Perry just seemed sleepy and lackluster. He lacked command of the room and, at times, his words.
"Governor Romney has said you have had two months to produce a plan, an economic plan, he's had a 59 point plan," debate moderator Charlie Rose said to Perry. "What will you say specifically?"
"Well, clearly, opening up a lot of the areas of our domestic energy area," Perry replied. "That's the real key."
Of course, it wasn't all bad for Perry. At one point, he landed a punch on Romney, saying, "Romneycare has driven the cost of small-business insurance premiums up by 14 percent over the national average in Massachusetts."
Romney claimed his plan was narrowly tailored to help the uninsured. "One of the problems with Obamacare is he doesn't just deal with the people without insurance," Romney said. "He takes over health care for everyone." Romney rattled off some differences between Obamacare and Romneycare (such as Medicare cuts and tax hikes). Perry tried to interrupt him. "I'm still speaking," Romney shot back, silencing Perry. "You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it's gone up."
"I care about people," Romney continued, almost implying about Romneycare critics what Perry said explicitly about his heartless anti-illegal immigration critics. Perry didn't chime in to rebut Romney, and the moderator moved on to the next question.
While Perry is certainly down, he's not out--at least not quite yet. After the debate ended, Perry showed off his skills as a retail politician at a small event with Dartmouth students. At the Beta fraternity house, Perry enthusiastically gave his stump speech. He warned about the debt hanging over their generation and perfectly recited his line about making D.C. as inconsequential to their lives as possible.
During a brief question-and-answer session, Perry asked students to raise their hands if they think Social Security will be around for them when they retire. Two or three hands popped up. "Those guys believe in the Tooth Fairy, as well," Perry cracked. The students laughed. "Just kidding, brother," he added with a smile.
Perry spent 10 minutes shaking hands after he spoke. He asked students questions about their lives, displaying a near-Clintonesque ability to make each student feel like he or she is the only one in the room. The dull Perry who showed up at Tuesday's debate was not the same upbeat and good humored Perry who showed up at the Beta house.
And yet, despite the glimmers of hope, it was hard not to see many of Perry's biggest problems still on display. First, there was a gaffe. When one student asked about the 10th amendment, Perry said: "The Founding Fathers never meant for Washington, D.C. to be the fount of all wisdom. As a matter of fact, they were very much afraid of that because they had just had this experience with this far away government that had centralized thought process and planning and what have you. And it was actually the reason that we fought the Revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that type of onerous crown, if you will." (Sixteenth century? Forget it, he's rolling.)
Rhetoric isn't Perry's only problem. While he talks tough on entitlements, he still hasn't offered a real plan to reform the programs. He still prefers to talk about the need for America to have a "conversation" about how to fix the programs. "If you're a mid-career young person, then you know that America has to sit down and we have to have this debate," Perry said. "Do we raise the age at which you become eligible for it. That's a legitimate conversation. We're living to be upwards of past 80.... Do you have an opportunity for young people your age as you transfer into the workforce to have private accounts?"
Less than 12 weeks from the likely date of the Iowa caucuses, Perry's asking questions, but he's still not offering specific answers. Rather than doubling down on entitlement reform--or offering a bold plan to remake the tax code like Herman Cain has proposed--Perry will be putting energy policy at the front and center of his economic plan this week. "I think it's probably going to be the key to the campaign. Because that's what people really care about, getting America working again," Perry told reporters after he left the Beta house. But it's hard to see how Perry will come up with anything that would truly distinguish himself from the rest of the field. While Perry may know more about energy, the issue may also seem a little parochial. "Texas is big on energy," a reporter said to Perry. "How are you going to expand this beyond energy?"
"Well, you know there are a lot of different sources of energy out there, whether it's clean burning coal, or it's ethanol, or whether it's the bio-mass, you know, solar, obviously, wind energy. All of those are part of a portfolio. Nuclear energy. All of those are part of a portfolio that will get America working again," Perry replied.
Perry is still polling in the teens, just behind Cain and Romney. It's still possible that conservative voters will coalesce behind Perry as the anti-Romney candidate. But over the past few weeks some conservatives have been asking themselves why they should settle for Perry when they can vote for a more conservative and exciting Herman Cain. Perry hasn't given them a good answer yet.