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10.11.11

Perry's Do-or-Die Debate

Tonight’s GOP debate gives Rick Perry—still the GOP field's most viable alternative, despite some early stumbles—another chance to prevent Mitt Romney’s coronation, says John Avlon.

Plus, join The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz at 8 p.m. EDT for a live chat during the debate.

Applications for the GOP’s Messiah of the Month Club are now closed. The Christies and Danielses have declined. Sarah Palin’s belated bow-out seemed bizarrely anticlimactic after three years of overheated speculation from fans now left at the altar while she counts her cash.

Rick Perry’s explosive entry has faded, making him seem at the moment like a cautionary tale. Herman Cain’s recent rocket-ship rise will no doubt be rattled under the scrutiny that comes with being in the top tier, despite a new Bloomberg poll that shows a surprising depth of support. Without any experience, however, this great communicator isn't gong to be the eventual 2012 standard-bearer.

All this leaves Romney looking like the inevitable nominee—a narrative his team is pushing while courting all the donor cash that was waiting for Chris Christie to get in the race. He’s got a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, and his head-to-head numbers against Obama are impressive—especially the 55 percent-vs.-37 percent lead he has with independent voters, according to Gallup. And among the nine candidates standing onstage, he looks, well, electable.

Even the media have gotten in on the game, coming perilously close to calling the nomination for Romney, offering knowing asides in a the-smart-money-knows-this-is-going-to-happen tone.

But call off the coronation. Do inevitable GOP nominees get only 4 percent of the vote at the Values Voter Summit? Can a party that united in angry opposition to Obamacare backtrack enough to back a nominee who pioneered the individual mandate in Massachusetts? If authenticity is the core attribute people say they want in a leader, can a practiced plastic salesman also be their savior?

Yes, the GOP has traditionally obeyed the laws of primogeniture, and it is Mitt Romney’s turn. He is the establishment candidate, the safe choice. But the Tea Party and evangelicals define the current Republican Party’s conservative primary base. And they just don’t like Mitt Romney that much, even though they’ll happily vote for him over Barack Obama. The whole Messiah of the Month Club impulse has been about both the weakness of the GOP field and dissatisfaction with Romney as the presumptive nominee. And pragmatic arguments about electability are unlikely to persuade these true believers.

Which is why I can’t help but think that the declared death of Rick Perry’s campaign has been premature. Yes, he had a bad last debate—but it wasn’t Tim Pawlenty bad. The man is, for better or worse, a professional politician of the kind we haven’t seen run for president since Bill Clinton. He may not be the smartest guy on the stage, but he’ll learn from his mistakes, play offense, and benefit from lowered expectations.  

Most important, Perry’s base of support comes squarely from those twin constituencies driving the GOP to the right, the Tea-vangelist crowd. He didn’t suffer in polls after he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme—instead, his biggest gaffe was defending Texas’s version of the Dream Act and questioning whether people who oppose letting children of illegals get an education “have a heart.” Call it a border-state governor’s soft spot, making him comparatively liberal on an issue he knows the most about. Romney could sense blood in the water, the rare opportunity to turn Perry’s right flank and cause the debate crowd to forget all about Obamneycare, returning to his "sanctuary cities" attacks during the ’08 debates.

Perry is unlikely to allow anyone to turn his right flank again in this campaign—he’d rather be strong and wrong. Perry remains the most viable alternative to the Romney nomination, and it’s not too late to believe the Texas governor could still rack up early wins in Iowa and South Carolina, creating newfound momentum and headlines like “Perry Pulls Ahead.” The horse-race mentality will demand at least a few more twists and turns.

There is no question that Perry’s entry into the race has made Romney a better campaigner and debater. He needed a challenge to shake him out of his slick comfort zone, to steel himself and show that he could take a punch and return fire. It has been a character-building experience, and Romney so far has come out ahead. But his being back in pole position means that everyone will be taking shots at Mitt tonight.

Let no one say that the presidential debates this year have been dull and uneventful. For all their imperfections and lost opportunities (more foreign policy, please), they have led to the end of one campaign (Pawlenty, after his failure to follow through on an Obamneycare attack), and turned Michele Bachmann into a flickering star, always on the verge of a core meltdown. The debates have allowed Newt Gingrich’s bucket-list presidential campaign to continue because he can simply show up and remind people that he can reference more policy ideas off the top of his head than other guys have put in their briefing books. And Herman Cain’s rise in the polls as the latest anti-Romney (and future Fox host) is almost entirely due to his first-rate communication skills, best displayed on the stage in front of an adoring crowd. Interestingly, he is showing some strengths in the new Bloomberg poll which could shine in tonight's debate. When asked "which candidate would do the most to improve the economy," Cain came in second, with 20 percent picking him, closely trailing Mitt Romney's 22 percent—both candidates representing a business background unique among the GOP field.

Don’t believe anyone who says this nomination struggle is all but over.

Happily for the cofounder of Bain Capital, tonight’s Bloomberg/Washington Post debate will be focused on economic issues—an area where Romney excels. His sales pitch to the American electorate this time around is presenting himself as a business executive, an experienced turnaround expert, perfectly suited to these challenging times, in contrast to a current president without business experience, and a cabinet to match. Perry’s best pitch will be the impressive job-creation record in Texas under his watch, but his lack of private-sector experience should be a notable vulnerability in a debate where he has to reestablish himself as the conservative alternative to Romney.

The bottom line is, don’t believe anyone who says this nomination struggle is all but over. The debates will continue to offer more than their share of highlights and lowlights. Your challenge as a citizen will be to try and separate the punches and the pandering from the policy. And if you don’t blink, you might actually catch a glimpse of what life under the next Republican administration could look like.