Can Rick Perry make a comeback?

Rick Perry's debate performance this week was universally panned, even by conservatives. Now, he's pushing his "authenticity" versus the "slickness" of his main Republican rival Mitt Romney.

2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, Friday, September 23, 2011.

It’s been a rough few days for Rick Perry.

His performance in Thursday night’s debate among Republican presidential hopefuls was universally panned.

On Fox News Saturday, Mike Huckabee said Perry looked “dumbfounded” and “not prepared for the presidential stage.”

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, gave the Texas governor a thumbs-down as well.

“No front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry,” he wrote the morning after. “It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him.”

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin judged that “the cringe-worthiest moment … was when Perry botched what should have been his most potent attack on Mitt Romney’s chronic flip-flopping.”

“Any random high schooler at the CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] in Washington could have done better than this,” she wrote. “If this is how Perry’s going to take Obama on in debates, we’re in trouble.”

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So does this open the way for Mitt Romney, who by most accounts did very well at the Orlando debate?

At times, Romney tried to sound like the most ardent tea partyer – especially when he went after Perry’s granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants enrolled at Texas colleges and universities.

But it depends on whether the tea party movement, which (philosophically, at least) is more in tune with Perry’s rhetoric, could ever see its way to support a former governor of liberal Massachusetts who enacted a health care law with an individual mandate.

There are differences of opinion about that.

“I don’t care if Perry is soft on immigration and tried to mandate a vaccination through executive order,” declares Tim Griffin at the conservative RedState web site. “Romney is the father of socialized medicine in America!”

“The likelihood that Perry will iron out the wrinkles and become a better debater and candidate over time is greater, and maybe far greater, than the likelihood that Mitt Romney will become more acceptable to conservatives,” writes Michael Tomasky at Newsweek’s Daily Beast.

But the closer it gets to the presidential election, the more likely tea partyers may be to go with “electability” over ideological purity.

"What Tea Partiers are looking for is someone that stands for something, but also someone that shows the political skills to win,” Matt Kibbe, chairman and CEO of FreedomWorks, told The Huffington Post. “It's not enough to be right and lose. The goal here is to win the presidency.”

"Romney has an opportunity to rehabilitate himself," Kibbe said

While Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman left Florida before that state’s GOP straw poll Saturday – discounting the importance of such beauty contests – Perry stuck around, saying “I have all my hopes on Florida.”

It’s easy to see why. Perry has a comfortable lead there, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, with 31 percent of the vote, nine points ahead of Romney. (At the same time this poll has Romney beating Obama one-on-one by seven points, while Perry trails Obama slightly.) But in a range of national and state polls, Perry’s position as the front-runner was slipping even before his lackluster debate performance Thursday night.

In speaking to delegates before the Florida straw poll Saturday, he tried to make a virtue of his “authenticity” in contrast to more grandiloquent political orators like Romney and Barack Obama.

"What Americans are looking for isn't the slickest candidate. They are looking for an authentic, principled leader, Perry said. "Think about it. You've seen what happens when our country chooses leaders who emphasize words over deeds."

Whether or not that’s true, voters will be listening carefully to Perry’s words when he and his GOP rivals hold their next debate in New Hampshire on October 11.

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