ORLANDO, Fla. - Is Rick Perry about to lose his momentum toward the Rpublican presidential nomination?
The Texas governor turned in a weak performance in a debate Thursday, raising questions about how ready he is for the rigors of a campaign and how much Republicans really know about him.
At the same time, Mitt Romney scored with a sharp performance. And others shined in the eyes of Republican voters as well, including Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Combined, the results heading out of the debate in Orlando suggest a party far from ready to coalesce behind Perry.
"It was Mitt Romney's best performance so far and Rick Perry's worst performance so far," said Republican researcher Frank Luntz.
"Perry created some doubt about himself," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who attended the debate and a three-day gathering of more than 3,000 conservative activists.
"This is a world of people used to good speakers with clear views," she said. "They worry now about his ability to stand beside President Obama in a debate."
At the gathering of conservatives Friday in the same convention center as the debate, it was all but impossible to find anyone who thought Perry did well Thursday night. The criticisms included his style - uniformly described as halting and unsure - and the substance, particularly his defense of in-state college tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants not available to citizens from other states.
"Perry looked uncomfortable. He got caught up on a couple of the questions. He was inconsistent," said Meg Shannon, a retired lawyer from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who attended the debate.
"I was leaning toward Mitt, but I wanted to hear the candidates," she said. "Mitt did very well."
Perry's performance underscored how fast he surged to the lead when he jumped into the race just six weeks ago, how untested he is, and how unscrutinized his record is beyond his boast of creating jobs.
Perry all but acknowledged his weakness as a debater during a speech Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
"As conservatives," he said, "we know that values and vision matter. It's not who's the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect."
Despite his 10 years as governor, Perry had only faced rivals in a debate four times before he starting running for president. He's now debated three times on that stage.
Some analysts said he tires and finishes poorly.
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