CONCORD, N.H. -- One week after yet another disappointing performance in a national debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the whole experience has been a mistake.
Speaking on Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's talk show Tuesday night, Perry said the debates "are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates."
"If there was a mistake made," he continued, "it was probably ever doing one . . . when all they're interested in is stirring it up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues."
Conservative pundits from lowly bloggers to standard-bearer William Kristol criticized Perry's early debate performances. Last month, Kristol wrote an editorial all-but banishing Perry from the race, saying, "no front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry. It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him."
Of course, debates aren't the be-all, end-all of the primary. There are house parties and town halls and diner eat-and-greets, too. But is there any historical record of a candidate overcoming such poorly received performances?
"I wouldn't say that there's been anybody who's had to quite come from as far a distance as Perry would have to," said Northeastern University Associate Professor Alan Schroeder, who literally wrote the book on presidential debates.
In 2004, he published the second edition of Presidential Debates - Fifty Years of High-Risk TV, which he said he'll update again after the 2012 election.
In all the debates he's examined, Schroeder said there have been candidates who stumbled in debates but recovered later, even going on to win their party's nomination and the general election. Despite that rosy news, Perry might not want to be compared to them: They are Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush sat out the first few debates but attended one sponsored by WMUR in December. Expectations were low, because "there was a feeling that he had been dodging and ducking, and he was pretty rough in the beginning," Schroeder said. "And he never got extremely better."
Obama, on the other hand, improved after his first debates in 2008.
"He was not a naturally gifted debater, he was not comfortable with the format, and you could see his frustration with having to compress the answers into 60 seconds," Schroeder said. "A lot of the reason why he got better was Hillary Clinton. She was very good, very prepared, and having to compete on the same stage with her, she inadvertently raised his level.
"The question for Rick Perry is: Does Mitt Romney, who has been the gold standard of debaters this round, does his performance help Perry bring up his level? It hasn't worked that way so far," Schroeder said.
Perry got more aggressive in last week's debate in Las Vegas, he said, "but that doesn't mean he was substantively much better."
The next GOP debate is scheduled for Nov. 9 at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Perry's campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said Perry would participate in that debate; another spokesman told Politico the campaign has made no commitments beyond that.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)