Rick Perry has not been doing all that well in these debates, and he isn’t improving. His standing in the polls paints a target on his back, of course, but that just means the attacks are predictable, and he doesn’t seem all that well-prepared to counter them. To take one example, Perry could defend his opposition to a border fence by arguing, say, that fence-building would involve infringing on the rights of landowners along the border; instead he simply asserts that it’s unrealistic without explaining why.
A worse problem, perhaps, is that Perry seems to have a stamina deficit; he tends to score points early in the debate and then become lethargic to the point of incoherence later. It was kind of astounding to see him go after Mitt Romney’s record of flip-flops — which should be a pretty easy line of attack — and stammer and fumble so much that it the punch completely failed to connect. Romney, who has had more practice at this than anyone else, seemed practically Reaganesque by comparison (and objectively speaking, Romney is far from Reaganesque).
Debates aren’t everything, but they are something. As Jim says, relatively few voters are paying close attention this early, so it’s not as if tonight’s debate is going to be decisive. But in a few months the debates are going to start to matter more. If Perry doesn’t get better at this soon, it could be fatal to his candidacy.