The first official set of I-wanna-be-president GOP debates has been held — no we're not talking about the Donald Trump extravaganza, since technically there was a debate before that — and former-Gov. Rick Perry made it almost the entire hour without making a classic Perry gaffe. Almost.
Perry didn't make the final cut to be one of the top 10 polling candidates in the Fox News debate. No, he was nowhere near the show when the Donald held forth during on the main stage in Cleveland with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and (somehow) Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Instead, Perry and the other six runners up — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former business executive Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore — were stuck being the opening act. It was an indignity that everyone but Graham and Pataki seemed to be smarting from, Perry in particular.
The first debate held on Fox News at 4 p.m. Thursday was a sad little affair. The room was almost entirely empty — the questions and the candidate responses reverberated in the hollow space and an Associated Press photo showed only a handful of people in the audience — and Fox News stopped panning across the mostly empty room minutes into the broadcast.
Every time Perry spoke his focus seemed to be on getting his point across without saying something embarrassing. Past that, he was clearly trying to channel the "presidential Perry-ness" we've glimpsed lately to convince people he's still a viable option even while he graced the "kiddie table" debate that Fox News reserved for the seven candidates who weren't doing well enough in the national polls to make the top ten.
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If he had pulled the whole thing off, viewers — the older Fox News fans able to tune in for an afternoon debate — would have walked away with the distinct impression that one candidate in particular should have been on the main stage. A lot of people did have that takeaway, but the candidate was Fiorina, not Perry.
Still, Perry acquitted himself reasonably well. He came on strong, promising to be a president that gets real results (the same song every candidate sings these days) and he talked about stopping Iran from getting the bomb and bringing a big bottle of white-out to erase any and all executive orders President Barack Obama has issued during his time in office.
For the most part, he said all that stuff without screwing anything up. (Sure, there was the moment when he was talking about illegal immigration and he seemed to refer to Ronald Reagan as "Ronald Raven," but Perry's camp insisted that everyone was just mishearing him.) “There's not anybody on either of these stages that has the experience that I have,” Perry said when talking about immigration. It seemed like a comment about his place in the entire campaign.
With a debate field this crowded, each candidate only got a few chances to speak and with Perry's history of misspeaking we thought he would either wipe the floor with everyone else or turn into the absolute gift of a campaign disaster that was Perry 2012. However, it wasn't the pill-popping "Oops" Perry on display, and it wasn't quite the policy wonk in "smart guy" glasses that he's tried so hard recently to become. This was a Perry intent on not making a mistake. And he almost pulled it off. He even wrapped things up with a little bit of hope. "Our best days are in front of us!" he said, talking about the United States but maybe also, just a little bit, about himself.