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Does Rick Perry really want to be president?

Watching Rick Perry’s debate performance Tuesday night, Decoder (along with many observers in the press) was struck by how itching-to-get-out-of-there uncomfortable he looked. It was like watching someone’s half-hearted attempt to engage in polite conversation at a dinner party he was only attending as a favor to his wife.

Which has led us today to this fundamental question: Does Rick Perry really want to be president? Or, more specifically, might the Texas governor regret his decision to jump into the race?

Tellingly, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered up his reasons for passing on a White House run, he said he’d tried to imagine himself in a hotel room in Des Moines “and it’s 5:30 in the morning and it’s 15 below, and it’s time for me to get up and go shake hands at the meatpacking plant.”

His point? To subject yourself to the true grind of a presidential campaign – with the loss of privacy, the discipline of having to be always on message, the tedium of giving the same speech over and over, and the out-and-out hard work required behind the scenes – you have to really, really want it.

And almost by definition, a candidate who jumps in only after some arm twisting by supporters – as Perry did and Christie did not – probably doesn’t want it that bad.

Ironically, despite the fact that Mitt Romney’s opponents consistently try to mock the fact that he’s been running for president for at least 6 years, it’s that very combination of outsized ambition and superhuman focus – that wanting-to-be-president-more-than-anything-else – that, while less than poetic, has ultimately proven to be Romney’s strongest asset. On some subconscious level, the seeds of Romney’s run were probably planted way back when his father failed to secure the GOP nomination in 1968. Certainly since 2003, when his strategists began plotting out a path to the White House, the former Massachusetts governor’s focus has been single. And it shows.

Which leads us to another question: If really, really wanting to be president is a necessary component of a successful run, is it perhaps an even more necessary component of a successful presidency?

It’s worth remembering that Barack Obama’s decision to get into the race in 2007 in some ways resembled Rick Perry’s more than Mitt Romney’s – he was answering the call and responding to the moment, rather than systematically carrying out a lifelong plan.

Back in August, after the debt ceiling debacle, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd penned a withering column calling for Obama to be “more alpha,” and questioning how much he really enjoyed the job of president. She wrote: “If Clinton wanted to be president 25 hours a day and W. wanted to be president four hours a day, Obama wants to be president for about 14 hours a day. And that’s fine, as long as you don’t look like you’re phoning it in when the country is dialing 911.”

But at a time of economic crisis, we wonder if the country may in fact demand a 25-hour-a-day president. At the least, a candidate who looks like he’s phoning it in at the debates and on the trail almost certainly isn’t going to cut it.

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