MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And we turn now to the campaign trail and to Texas Governor Rick Perry. He rocketed to the top of the field as soon as he entered the race for the GOP presidential nomination, but that was last month. This month, Perry is trying to regain his momentum after a series of wobbly debate performances - so wobbly, NPR's Mara Liasson reports, many Republican strategists say Perry needs to make big changes and fast.
MARA LIASSON: Perry's early rise in the polls was based on what Republican voters thought they knew about him. But the debates gave Republicans a chance to see Perry in action, and the normally aggressive Texas governor has been forced into the uncomfortable position of defense. Here he is in Michigan last weekend.
RICK PERRY: No other candidate on that stage has the record that I have. Yep, there may be slicker candidates and there may be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in.
LIASSON: There were three key moments in the Orlando debate where Perry undercut himself. The first came when he defended his support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
PERRY: If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.
LIASSON: Calling people who disagree with you heartless is not a great way to win their votes. And Perry has since acknowledged that was a poor choice of words. But that wasn't Perry's only problem in the Orlando debate. He also seemed unprepared when asked a predictable foreign policy question about what he'd do if Pakistan's nuclear weapons fell into the wrong hands.
PERRY: Well, obviously, before you ever get to that point, you have to build a relationship in that region. That's one of the things that this administration has not done. Yesterday, we found out through Admiral Mullen that Haqqani has been involved with - and that's the terrorist group directly associated with the Pakistani country. So to have a relationship with India...
LIASSON: And when he tried to attack Mitt Romney with a list of well-known flip-flops, he seemed tongue-tied.
Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of, against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it - was before - he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of, he was for...
Perry's unsteady performance set many Republicans to wondering whether Perry was ready for a presidential campaign or, for that matter, the White House. Bruce Keough is a Republican activist who had been Mitt Romney's New Hampshire state chair in 2008. But he publicly broke with Romney earlier this year and said he was looking for another candidate. He told me he was interested in Rick Perry. I spoke to Keough right before the Orlando debate.
BRUCE KEOUGH: With Perry, I'm looking for that reassurance, that message to the voters that, yeah, I call them like I see them, and I've said some things when I'm making speeches and writing books that might give you pause, but I'm not going to be a president you have to worry about. I'm not going to drop the ball on the 5-yard line.
LIASSON: I called Keough back after the debate to see what he thought about Perry.
KEOUGH: I have serious concerns that he may be someone who's going to drop the ball after watching him in Orlando.
LIASSON: So what does Rick Perry do now? Advice, of course, is plentiful. Republican consultant Alex Castellanos worked for Romney in 2008 and for one of Perry's opponents in the 2006 Texas governor's race.
ALEX CASTELLANOS: Rick Perry's never won races in Texas because he's loved or because he's eloquent. He's won races because he rips his opponents' lungs out.
LIASSON: And that's what Castellanos thinks Perry should do now - attack. Attack Barack Obama, show Republicans how he'd fight the main event. But between now and then, he has to attack Mitt Romney and Castellanos says that could be risky.
CASTELLANOS: What's he gonna do? Tell them that he passed Romneycare? That's not gonna change anything. What it might do is strengthen Romney because if Romney sits there imperturbable, unflappably cool and keeps on going, you know, this may be what Mitt Romney needs.
LIASSON: Most Republicans agree that Rick Perry doesn't have a Romney problem, he has a Perry problem. Florida Republican strategist Eric Eikenberg says Perry needs to remind Republicans what they liked about him in the first place, that he's a strong conservative, an evangelical Christian with a Texas record to boast about.
ERIC EIKENBERG: He's the only governor in this country that can actually say that he's been a job creator, his state's been a job creator, during this recession. And that's a message that is resonating with voters.
LIASSON: Eikenberg thinks it's still early enough for Perry to refocus. And he'll have plenty of opportunities to do that. He's campaigning in New Hampshire this weekend, and then on October 11th, Perry will be back in Mitt Romney's backyard for another debate. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.