09/22/2011 09:08 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2011

Rick Perry Florida Debate Performance Could Be Key Moment For Campaign

WASHINGTON – Rick Perry leads national polls in the Republican presidential primary, but he has been battered so much this month that if his third debate on Thursday night goes as roughly as his first two, he could be in some trouble.

Perry's advantage over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been cut roughly in half over the last two weeks. Attacks on him from Romney and other candidates have taken their toll, raising questions about whether Perry is as good as first advertised, and more importantly, whether he can beat President Obama in the general election.

"[The 2012 election] will be less about our nominee, as long as our nominee is not scary," said a prominent Ohio Republican, who asked that he not be identified in order to speak more frankly about Perry's weaknesses.

Perry's Social Security comments, in particular, have spooked Republican officials in numerous key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. These Republicans agree with the Texan's sentiment that the government-administered system of retirement accounts needs to be reformed; most would even want it partially privatized. But they cringe at Perry's implying Social Security might not be constitutional, at his casual mentions of possibly sending the program to the state level, and at his provocative rhetoric –- calling it a "Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lie" -- which they think would be used in their states as a battering ram against Perry and other candidates down the ballot in the last few weeks of the general election.

Even if Perry releases a full and comprehensive plan for Social Security, the Ohio Republican "fear[s] it would be overshadowed."

"Our nominee needs to be talking about jobs and the economy. But the other side needs to scare, because the other side doesn't want to talk about jobs and the economy," he said. "So our nominee will spend little of their resources talking about Social Security. The other side will spend a lot of resources because they don't want to talk about anything else."

Reggie Bashur, a lobbyist in Austin who has worked with and advised Perry, said Perry is simply talking about Social Security in the same way he always has.

"He believes in talking to the people directly and telling them what he thinks, and frankly I think it served him well in this campaign. People, whether they agree or not with every statement, they respect that he is being direct and open and candid," Bashur told The Huffington Post. "As this process moves forward most of the media will conclude that Gov. Perry is one of the most able and effective political figures this country has ever had. "

"He's a leader. When he gets elected, and congress sends him a budget that is not what he wanted, he'll stay and they won't get the continuing resolutions. He won't sign those. These guys will have finally met somebody who's going to make them live within their means. This country hasn't had that in a while," he said.

But Perry has clearly recognized that he is vulnerable on the Social Security issue. At his second debate, he went out of his way to emphasize his intent to preserve the system for current beneficiaries and for those who are nearing eligibility. But he has seemed uncertain about how to respond to the focused and relentless attacks from the more seasoned Romney campaign, which continued on Wednesday.

The Romney camp issued six specific and detailed questions for Perry to answer on Wednesday morning. It took Perry's campaign six hours to respond. About five minutes after they did so, the Romney campaign struck back on a different topic, pointing out that Texas had lost 1,300 jobs in August and labeling Perry "Governor Sub-Zero."

But debates play an enormous role in shaping voters' opinions and perceptions of candidates. Thursday's debate in Orlando is the last of three in September, and the next is almost three weeks away. Perry's performance in it will either help arrest the negative momentum that has been building up against him, or accelerate it.

Republican political operatives said that on Thursday night, Perry needs to be quicker to move past attacks from other candidates and to focus on a positive message.

"Key for Governor Perry, when attacked, is to relentlessly pivot back to his strong suit, which is his successful record as a conservative governing a great and prosperous state," said Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads, a conservative political action group. "It doesn't pay to get bogged down in global warming or the Seventeenth Amendment if there's a story to be told about a free market policy that created jobs in Abilene."

Rob Collins, a former chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who is now a consultant with Washington lobbying firm Purple Strategies, thinks "Perry needs to have a crisper rationale for why he is running for President."

"He needs three or four clear points that tell his story, reflect his accomplishments and slim down the Perry narrative," Collins said. "Right now he is too broad and Perry is having trouble defining himself. With these points down he can mitigate attacks, establish some discipline about his 10 years as governor and then pivot back to his message."

But Social Security continues to linger. As the issue has metastasized for Perry, others have cropped up. His fellow presidential candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have hammered him for issuing an executive order in 2007 mandating vaccination of 11- and 12-year old girls against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease and a leading cause of cervical cancer. The order contained an opt-out procedure, meaning that parents were allowed to prevent their daughters from being vaccinated if they wanted to. The Republican-controlled Texas legislature passed legislation negating Perry's executive order. Bachmann has pointed to the fact that Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for Merck, the drug maker who manufactured the first-available form of the vaccine, Gardasil.

Little is known about Toomey's role in the matter. The Texas governor's office has released several hundred pages of internal correspondence about the vaccine and the executive order, but there are indications in that batch of documents that there was plenty of discussion about them that was not written down or preserved.

On February 1, 2007, Greg Davidson, the governor’s executive clerk, sent an email to other staffers soliciting final comments for Perry’s executive order on the HPV vaccine. In it, he wrote, “[I]f you’ve been working offline on some changes or under the table with someone else on this one, get your comments to me ASAP."

Perry has said he was wrong to bypass the legislature by issuing an executive order, but he has been erratic in explaining his position. In August he said the vaccination order should have had an opt-in, which would make it something that parents would pursue for their child only if they really wanted it. Yet in the last two debates, he has lauded the opt-out as sufficient, saying he didn't "know what's more strong for parental rights." Then two days after the most recent debate, he once again said the opt-in should have been included.

He also said the existence of the opt-out provision was proof that what he issued was not a mandate.

But a former Perry staffer, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, insists that when the policy was developed in 2007, everyone was in total agreement about one thing: they were implementing a mandate.

"We knew if you don't do the mandate, you don't get compliance," the former staffer said. "The mandate drives compliance."

The staffer said the order simply fit with other initiatives Perry had launched. In 2003, the governor signed an executive order aimed at increasing immunization rates.

"When we started making progress on immunization, we got really excited," she said. "We weren't 50th [in the nation] anymore."