Nate Silver spots Perry's Achilles heel: his likely weakness in the general election:
Electability does matter to primary voters. Historically, parties have rarely nominated the most ideologically extreme candidates in their field. Yes, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater won — but they have been more the exceptions than the rule as compared with a host of others (Howard Dean, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown) who lost.
Yglesias is in the same ballpark:
[W]hen trying to think like a Republican base voter it’s worth remembering that one thing a Republican base voter wants to do is beat Barack Obama. If you came in to last night’s debate thinking that Perry would be the weaker general election candidate, nothing he said or did would tend to eliminate those fears. He gave a rambling, incoherent answer to a pretty straightforward question about climate change, insisted on making inflammatory statements about Social Security divorced from any policy point, etc.
To my eye: Romney moves smoothly ahead, Perry raises some of the "hey, wait a minute" doubts that have pulled down Bachmann since her early prominence. Romney and Huntsman, who sounded way smoother and more confident than he had before, were the two who seem as if they realize there is a campaign to run against Obama after the primaries. Obviously I am not part of the Tea Party base. But one of these people is going to have to run for non-Tea Party votes a year from now, and that's the standard I am applying.
My big takeaway of the evening is that Rick Perry emerged (barely) as the winner, if “winner” is a word that can properly describe this crew. Perry seemed sure of himself most of the time, and projected gravitas, except for some stumbles that may not look like stumbles (more on which later). Romney seemed strangely insubstantial next to him. Why on earth didn’t Romney go after Perry more?
The revelation from the Republican presidential debate: Rick Perry and his team utterly failed to prepare answers to utterly predictable questions on “military adventurism” and Social Security. Worse than that, Perry’s Social Security answer delivered President Obama the perfect clip for a 2012 negative ad: Rick Perry in his too-new suit and too-shiny tie denouncing Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. If Perry wins the nomination, expect to see that moment reiterated in as many TV ads as $1 billion in presidential campaign funds can buy.
Overall, I’d say that Romney and Perry did well, Romney perhaps a little more so, while Bachmann lost by not engaging, and the rest of the field didn’t make a case for their relevancy to the eventual outcome. If Perry can work on his delivery a bit over the next two debates, this will become a two-man race.
[I]t looks to be a pretty straight-up Romney-Perry race. What will be interesting to watch is how the party establishment handles this matchup. You’d think from the way the media have framed it that the establishment will be totally behind Romney. I’m not so sure. A lot of the party’s establishment these days is in Texas
[F]or [Perry's] first outing on the national stage, he did just fine. From the outset he stirred things up. This was, for example, the first debate I can think of when anyone on stage had the guts to criticize Mitt Romney for anything. Perry did just that—and with gusto. He dismissed Karl Rove as basically a nut. He even threw an elbow at Ron Paul just for kicks. Overall he added a little sizzle to a group whose idea of cutting-edge humor involves Al Gore discovering the Internet and Obama’s overuse of teleprompters (so 2009).
[I]t was when Perry talked about the death penalty that you saw how his candidacy can tap into the conservative soul: he was utterly untroubled by the thought he might have authorised the execution of an innocent prisoner (as he almost certainly did in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham) and, what's more, the audience cheered him to the echo. I thought it revolting but it was popular stuff, delivered in the appropriate "alpha male" style of a man with balls big enough to fry an innocent man. And, in the end, that's what a large part of Perry's appeal rests upon: an idea of how a conservative Presidential candidate should look, talk and walk. Never mind the substance, feel the attitude dude.
Amy Davidson focuses on the same moment:
Is “justice” some sort of slot machine that works best, in terms of wins, when it turns out the most bodies? The applause will likely be cited as an example of our national bloodthirstiness. That’s not quite right, though; the truth is a little worse. Even a death-penalty supporter might be expected to remember that each execution is part of a story that involves the death of a victim, maybe more than one. For there to be a lot of executions, there have to have been a lot of murders—and that can hardly be cause for happiness. But one suspects that, for this audience, “death penalty” had ceased to be anything but a political symbol—a word disconnected from actual lives and deaths. It wouldn’t be the only sign of detachment from reality in the debate.
Romney demonstrated a thorough command of issues, while Perry served up word salad, Palin style, once the questions got complicated. Romney defended Social Security, while Perry reaffirmed his belief that the program was a “ponzi scheme." I won’t pretend to know how their respective performances will affect the campaign, because I’m not a conservative. But if this were a contest of smarts, savvy, and polish, Romney would have won handily.
It's easy to read too much into a debate, but if Wednesday night did nothing else it proved that the biggest threat to Rick Perry's candidacy continues to be Rick Perry.