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First Thoughts: Perry struggles again

Perry struggles again in last night’s debate… Another solid performance from Romney… Bachmann was virtually absent, while Santorum had a good showing… Another GOP presidential event from Florida today: CPAC… And Florida Straw Poll results will be released tomorrow afternoon… Obama delivers remarks on “No Child Left Behind” reform at 10:15 am… WV GOV race coming up soon… And “Meet the Press” has Benjamin Netanyahu and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

*** Perry struggles again: If Rick Perry’s goal last night was to erase doubts about his past debate performances, he didn’t succeed. Once again, Perry started out strong, discussing his economic record in Texas and deflecting Mitt Romney’s attacks on Social Security. But then everything went downhill for him: Perry stumbled when talking about Pakistan (saying that better relations with India is the way to keep Pakistani nukes out of the hands of terrorists; huh?) and he badly mangled his flip-flopper charge on Romney (it was a rehearsed line, right?). The good news for Perry, as we noted yesterday, is that primary debate winners usually don’t end up winning the nomination. The bad news, however, is that his past three debates haven’t given establishment Republicans (especially key donors) the confidence that he’s their guy.

AP

Republican presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left, and former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA).

*** Desperately seeking someone else? Meanwhile, for the next week or two, watch out for more establishment conservatives calling for new candidates. There’s Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot’s continued campaign to recruit Chris Christie into the race. Gigot is about as close to being a potential pied piper for what’s left of the GOP donor establishment community as there is right now.

*** Another solid performance from Romney: If Perry once again struggled, then Romney once again turned in a solid performance. He was confident, funny, and sharp. The one time he got knocked off his game was on Perry’s charge that he backed the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” education program. Romney’s answer: “I don't support any particular program that he's describing.” But as NBC’s Garrett Haake recalls, Romney said this on Wednesday: "I think [Education] Secretary Duncan has done some good things.... He, for instance, has this program called ‘Race to the Top,’ which encourages schools to have more choice, more testing of kids, more evaluation of teachers. Those are things that I think make some sense.” Ouch. But the difference between 2008 and now: Four years ago, all the GOP candidates (McCain, Huckabee, Rudy) piled on Romney. This time, there isn’t that pile-on effect, and that has helped him escape tough questions. Seriously, who thought, six debates in, that there wouldn’t be one memorable debate moment that had all the GOP candidates piling on Romney over the mandate? It’s actually kind of remarkable…

AP

Republican presidential candidates prior to last night's debate, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.

*** Breaking down the rest: As for the other participants, Michele Bachmann was virtually absent, which won’t turn around the building narrative that the race is passing her by. Rick Santorum gave a very strong performance, perhaps his best of the cycle and he’s turning into one of Mitt Romney’s most important allies in debates. (If Bachmann continues her free fall, Romney’s going to want Santorum to get viable if Perry’s to break a sweat in Iowa.) Jon Huntsman was better than at last week’s debate (no Kurt Cobain references this time). Ron Paul was Ron Paul, Newt was Newt, and Herman Cain was Herman Cain. And Gary Johnson, in his first debate since May, delivered the line of the night with a possible assist from Rush Limabugh (“My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration”), but did little else to prove that he’s a serious contender for the nomination.

*** Today’s CPAC and tomorrow’s straw poll: In yet another event for the GOP candidates in Orlando, today they’re addressing the Florida-based CPAC convention. The order: Bachmann speaks at 9:15 am ET, Romney goes at 9:30 am, Gingrich at 9:45 am, Perry at 1:00 pm, Johnson at 1:15 pm, Santorum at 1:30 pm, Paul at 1:45 pm, Cain at 2:00 pm, and Huntsman at 2:15 pm. And then on Saturday comes the Florida Straw Poll. Per NBC’s Andrew Rafferty, this straw poll is MUCH different than last month’s Ames Straw Poll. Unlike Ames (which was open to all voters), the only people who can cast ballots at this straw poll are the selected group of 3,500 delegates from around the Sunshine State. But organizers say the straw poll has picked the eventual primary winner in 1980 (Reagan), 1988 (Bush), and 1996 (Dole); the straw poll wasn’t conducted in the ’00 and ’08 cycles because most candidates weren’t willing to participate. Rafferty says that straw-poll results are expected between 5:30 pm and 6:30 pm ET.

 *** On the 2012 trail: Also today, Cain holds a rally in Orlando at 10:00 am ET… Romney speaks at an Indiana GOP event in Indianapolis later this afternoon… Paul addresses an LSU "Youth for Ron Paul" Event in Baton Rouge, LA… Perry hits a fundraiser in Orlando… And the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference begins in Michigan; Perry and Romney will speak there tomorrow.

*** Obama’s day: At 10:15 am ET from the White House, President Obama delivers remarks on “No Child Left Behind” reform.

*** WV GOV race coming up soon: A reminder for political observers: West Virginia’s gubernatorial contest between incumbent Earl Ray Tomblin (D) and businessman Bill Maloney (R) takes place on Oct. 4 -- so just 11 days from now. We’ll have more on this race in the coming days.

*** Friday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up: USA Today’s Susan Page joins from Florida to recap the GOP debate… DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz reacts to what she heard from Republicans last night… NBC’s Michael Isikoff takes a deeper look into Rick Perry’s job creation record in Texas… And our Friday politics panel: the Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson, Erin McPike of Real Clear Politics, and former RNC Chair Michael Steele.

*** Friday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell has an exclusive interview with Cate Edwards, daughter to John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards. She also will interview Jim Zogby and Aaron David Miller (on the Palestinian demand at the UN for statehood), the White House’s Melody Barnes (on President Obama’s No Child Left Behind speech), and NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza (on last night’s debate).

*** Sunday’s “Meet the Press” line-up: On “Meet the Press” this Sunday, NBC’s David Gregory interviews Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The roundtable -- tied to NBC’s Education Nation -- consists of Donna Shalala, Tim Shriver, Bill Bennett, and Tavis Smiley.

Countdown to Election Day 2011: 46 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 136 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up, and it’s likely that the contest takes place earlier.

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