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GOP debate: Did Rick Perry survive the attacks of his fellow Republicans?

The Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., Thursday night wasn’t all about Rick Perry. But at this point in the long, grueling pre-primary campaign, all eyes were on the Texas governor.

Particularly the eyes of Mitt Romney – dislodged as the front-runner by Perry – who aggressively came after the Texan, scoring debating points on the economy, education, immigration, and other issues.

Perry was not backing down, however, standing firm when not just Romney but the other candidates as well hammered him on his immigration record in Texas. If you don’t understand the need to provide in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, he said, “Then you have no heart” – a comment that drew a mixture of applause and booing.

Primary voters choose their champion based not just on policy points but on style and comfort level with the contenders. On Thursday night, at least, Romney seemed more self-assured, confident, and articulate. Perry sometimes appeared to have a hard time looking at Romney standing next to him, hesitating now and then in his answers.

In his response to a question about terrorists acquiring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, “he did not seem in command on a topic on which he needs to show some heft,” blogged Maggie Haberman, a senior political writer for Politico.

“In a way, he’s still the rookie in the field,” said conservative Washington Post columnist and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer immediately following the debate in Orlando, which was sponsored by Fox News and Google.

With his late entry in the GOP contest, Perry quickly shoved Michele Bachmann to the side as the tea party favorite, then bolted to the presumptive front-runner slot in national polls.

But since then, his campaign has hit a couple of speed bumps, and he’s lost ground in some polls.

He startled many analysts (not to mention voters) with his tarring Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and possibly unconstitutional. His ordering middle-school girls to receive injections to protect against a sexually transmitted disease raised the ire of many parents (and libertarians generally), and it also led to charges of “crony capitalism” because of political contributions from Merck, the company that makes the vaccine.

His pro-Israel speech in New York this week was sharply criticized by Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan.

“It does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Perry that when you are running for president you have to be big, you have to act as if you’re a broad fellow who understands that when the American president is in a tight spot in the U.N., America is in a tight spot in the U.N. You don’t exploit it for political gain,” Noonan wrote.

Then there’s the hot-button issue of immigration. For all his touting of job creation during his tenure as governor, there’s a controversial side to that too. According to a Center for Immigration Studies report this week, of all the jobs created in Texas since 2007, 81 percent went to immigrants – half of those to illegal immigrants.

It seems increasingly likely that immigration for Perry will be like the Massachusetts health care program for Romney: the one issue that will not go away until the primary-caucus season is over and the GOP candidate has been chosen.

Meanwhile, Perry has been slipping in several polls – especially in comparison to Mitt Romney.

“Just a few weeks ago, two national polls showed Perry leading Mitt Romney by 12 and 13 points,” Marc Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post Thursday. “This week, two new polls (from USA Today and the New York Times) show that Romney has cut Perry’s lead nearly in half to just 7 points. In South Carolina, Perry once held a commanding 20-point lead over Romney. That lead has narrowed to just 3 points. Just after entering the race, Perry shot into second place in New Hampshire with 18 percent support. Today, a new Suffolk University/WHDH TV poll shows Perry slipping 10 points to fourth place, with just 8 percent of the vote — trailing even Jon Huntsman.”

Still, Perry has a comfortable lead in Florida, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, with 31 percent of the vote, nine points ahead of Romney. That’s a key state with many seniors on Social Security, plus the possibility that it may move up its primary date to give it more clout. (At the same time this poll has Romney beating Obama one-on-one by seven points, while Perry trails Obama slightly.)

The pre-debate hours amounted to a pugilists’ pre-fight stare-down, only this was at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering of religious conservatives organized by Ralph Reed. There, both Romney and Bachmann took not-so-subtle potshots at Perry.

Who won the Thursday night debate? Pundits will pontificate, but Saturday’s Florida Republican Party straw poll may be the best clue.

As Florida Gov. Rick Scott frequently points out, the winner of each of the three previous straw polls also won both the Florida primary and the nomination – Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996. And two out of the three went on to win the White House.

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