There appears to be widespread agreement that Rick Perry's performance in Tuesday's debate in Las Vegas was his best yet. Thank heavens I missed the last couple of GOP debates then, because I thought Perry's performance was dreadful. At no point did one look at him and think Hmmm, that guy could be President of the United States. That doesn't mean he cannot win the Republican nomination, merely that Perry needs to find some way of "connecting" with voters that doesn't involve defeating Mitt Romney in an actual debate. Because on this evidence (sorry Jonathan) that ain't gonna happen.
Even the ballyhooed tiff on illegal immigrants actually demonstrated Perry's problems with this format. The question, in case you'd forgotten, was actually about healthcare and there was Perry suddenly swinging away at Romney about hiring illegal immigrants? What the hell was that about and where did it come from? The answer, I hazard, is something like this:
Yikes! Healthcare! Not my strong point 'cos of all the uninsured in Texas. Must talk about something else. What is there? Oh yes: Romney once hired a gardening firm that hired illegal immigrants! Been meaning to mention this for ages. Bingo! Let's talk about it now! Whaddyamean it's irrelevant to the question I'm supposed to be answering? Who cares about that? I'm gonna hit Mitt with this anyway. Charge!
Nevermind that Perry looked ridiculous, flailing away in the manner of a boxer forced to lumber forward (bravely and stupidly) because he lacks the boxing skills to fight any other way. He's only got one speed and one punch and he'll never win on points. So it's knock-out or bust. Mostly it's bust. At least as far as these debates are concerned. There's no suppleness or quickness to Perry. He has a plan (of sorts) and a few soundbites ("I'm not a conservative of convenience") and a couple of prepared ploys but he's just a limited debater.
Romney, by contrast, is the classy fighter, capable of bossing a fight or calmly staying on the outside, picking his punches and landing most of them. Having demolished Herman Cain in the first ten minutes of the Vegas debate, he proceeded to dance around Perry. Sure, everyone else ganged up on Romney and he took some punches but you couldn't help but feel that there was only one guy on stage with the chops to be a proper presidential contender.
That said, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum enjoyed, in their very different ways, their best outings of the season. For all that Santorum's campaign is doomed, it's not quite fair to call him a vanity candidate. He raises issues - such as social mobility - that no-one else cares to mention and this is worth something.
So, if you were judging on the debates it has to be Romney. But debating prowess is probably over-valued by pundits. Remember too that Barack Obama didn't "win" all that many of the Democratic primary debates in 2007/8. It took him quite some time to learn how to best use the format. And, of course, "winning" debates is no kind of qualification for being President of the United States, far less a recommendation that the best debater should be the President.