MANCHESTER, N.H. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has had four chances to prove his mettle in presidential debates, and while some of his showings have been better than others, none has been good from beginning to end. Perry has, at various times, come across as fatigued, uninformed and — heaven forbid — moderate.
Perry has fallen from front-runner to underdog, while everything seems to be breaking in favor of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who, as a debater, is unmatched in the GOP field.
But it's still too soon to count Perry out.
Two and a half months out from the Iowa caucuses, debates are playing an outsize role in the campaign. The candidates are talking to voters and are moving about the states with early nominating contests. But those events are often colored by what happened in the most recent debate.
Iowans, for example, hear Perry absorbing blows on immigration, so they ask him about immigration. Meanwhile, debate clips air day after day on cable news.
But it won't be this way for much longer. The candidates will keep debating, but soon they'll also start running television ads that will reshape the conversations voters are having. The telegenic Perry and his team have proven in Texas that they know how to use television spots to move voters, and those ads offer Perry a chance to talk about the campaign in his terms instead of Charlie Rose's or Rick Santorum's.
And that leads to perhaps the most important reason not to count Perry out: With the possible exception of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, Perry is the only candidate who can raise the money to pay for an extended television campaign against Romney.
Of course, Romney will also have plenty of money, and his ads could neutralize Perry's. But Perry's millions at least give him a fighting chance. And that doesn't even include the heavy sums that lobbyist Mike Toomey and others are raising for a pro-Perry "super PAC" that can accept unlimited contributions from wealthy donors.
Finally, while Romney is riding a nice wave right now, he's not running away with this thing — especially not in Iowa.
Voters against Romney have at various points lined up behind U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Perry and former pizza executive Herman Cain. But Cain will get more scrutiny, and key voices on the right are starting to question his tax reform plan. Plus, he hasn't proved that he can raise serious money or build a serious campaign organization. In short, Cain is likely to fade, and his supporters could put Perry back in contention.
Whether Cain supporters come back to Perry could be determined by what bothers them more: Perry's support for in-state college tuition for some children of illegal immigrants, or the similarities between Romney's Massachusetts health care plan and the plan that President Barack Obama signed into law.
Or the choice may come down to this: Are they more enamored with Romney's electability (polls show he fares better than Perry against Obama) or Perry's non-Mormon religiosity?
Perry has dug himself a hole from which he might not escape, and Romney is a better bet to win. But just as August pronouncements that Perry would sail to the nomination were premature, so too is any suggestion today that he cannot recover.
Jason Embry writes for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.