Perry: The Cruise-Control Debater

In his first national debate, Perry will likely stay above the fray.


Dave Mann

Rick Perry has never been keen on debates.

In his three campaigns for Texas governor, Perry treated candidates debates as necessary evils—events he had to endure and survive. (That is, of course, with the notable exception of the 2010 general election, when Perry refused to debate his Democratic opponent.)

Though Perry is the longest serving governor in Texas history, I can think of only four debates he’s appeared in: one debate each in the 2002 and 2006 campaigns, and two during the 2010 GOP primary.

 The governor didn’t perform particularly well in any of them. He didn’t have to. Each time, he was ahead in the polls and coasting toward victory. His mission was simply not to screw up. He played it safe, defended his record, and avoided any gaffes that might have altered the race.

Tonight Perry will take part in his first nationally televised debate as a presidential candidate. (8 p.m. EDT on MSNBC). We’ve been bombarded in recent days with analysis of Perry’s debating skills. Paul Burka at the Monthly thinks Perry will be “seen as the winner.”  The New Republic opines that he will “thrive in presidential debates.”

In reality, we really don’t know if he’s up to the task; Perry never needed a knockout debate performance. He’s never trailed in the polls and needed a lively debate performance to jump-start his campaign.

The conventional wisdom in Texas has always been that if and when Perry ran for national office, he’d have to break away from his cruise-control debating style and actually engage his opponents.

I doubt that will happen tonight.

Perry once again finds himself leading in the polls. His mission tonight—as in his past gubernatorial debates—is to avoid saying anything incredibly stupid.

Perry may face tough questions from the medial panel, and attacks from Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney about his controversial past remarks and actions.

But as long as Perry can effectively defend his record and not commit any race-altering gaffes, then he will likely continue as the GOP front-runner. It’s a position Perry is familiar with and one he’s succeeded in.

All eyes will be on Perry tonight, but I suspect he will stay above the fray. And I doubt we’ll learn much about his debating skills.

At some point—either later in the primary season or perhaps in a general election against Obama—Perry will face a one-on-one debate that he can’t simply coast through. He will face a debate in which he’ll have to appear presidential, offer concrete proposals and rise to the occasion before a live national audience.

But that won’t happen tonight.