The Republican presidential debates are starting to take on an air of familiarity.
The main question, at least in terms of media coverage, is how Texas Gov. Rick Perry reacts to being what he calls the "pinata" on the stage—the target of the other candidates. So far, Perry is handling the pressure adequately, but he often seems off balance and tentative in responding to attacks. This makes him appear more than a bit vulnerable, counter to his image as a swaggering cowboy.
There is a growing sense that Perry, a newcomer to the race but the front runner in the polls, is not the supremely powerful candidate that his advance billing suggested. His momentum appears to have stalled, at least in the public-opinion surveys. Of course he can recover but it's also clear that presidential campaigning is a much more difficult political enterprise than anything Perry has faced before and he will need to improve his game.
As has happened in the other two presidential debates in which Perry participated, the main feature of last night's encounter was Perry's repeated confrontations with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is widely considered the other top-tier candidate at this time.
Romney is a seasoned debater who benefits from having run for president in 2008, and he is adept at throwing zingers Perry's way on issues ranging from Social Security, a program which Perry has strongly criticized, and illegal immigration, where Perry is less conservative than many Republicans would prefer.
But Perry still has many strengths as a contender, notably his state's record of job-creation during an economic downturn and his popularity among Tea Party activists who are crucial in the GOP nominating process.
Despite the familiarity of the debates, this race is in its infancy. The nation has yet to see the full capabilities of the candidates and their campaigns, such as their ability to raise money, the effectiveness of their television advertising, and how they organize their grass-roots efforts.
And it's certainly true that someone other than Perry and Romney could break into the top tier. As I've written here before, one can't forecast the outcome of a presidential race this early. The only thing we can predict is that there will be surprises, and probably many of them.