Carney's frustration was understandable. After two consecutive weak debate performances, Perry was under considerable pressure to do well on Tuesday. He didn't. In fact, Perry was so underwhelming that the candidate himself began explaining away his performance just moments after the debate ended.
"Debates are not my strong suit," he told a friendly crowd at a Dartmouth fraternity house not far from the debate hall.
Two moments illustrated Perry's problem. First, unlike several other candidates, including frontrunner Mitt Romney, Perry has not released a detailed economic plan. Asked about that at the last debate, on September 22, Perry promised to produce one. But on Tuesday night -- at a session devoted exclusively to economic matters -- he still didn't have a plan. Instead, Perry said the first part of his program will be to unleash the American energy industry. As for the rest of it, Perry said, "Mitt has had six years to be working on a plan. I have been in this for about eight weeks."
The second moment came later, after Perry appeared to check out of the debate for a long stretch of time. As the other candidates discussed what to do about trade and China, moderator Charlie Rose asked Perry for his view.
"We're missing this so much," Perry said. "What we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we are going to have this policy or that policy. What we need to be focused on is how we get American working again." At that instant, Perry appeared to give up completely on trying to say what should be done about the economy.
After the debate, Carney defended Perry's lack of a full-scale economic plan, claiming that Perry will actually produce such a plan more quickly than Romney did. Romney released his proposal about three months after declaring his candidacy, Carney explained.
"We're going to put out our plan in ten weeks. It's not just putting a slogan on a bumper sticker…We're going to have an economic plan out there quicker than Romney did." The problem, of course, is that Romney unveiled his plan September 6, and it's been part of the public discussion for more than a month.
As Carney spoke, just a few feet away representatives from the Romney team were absolutely brutal as they picked apart Perry's performance. Perry was a "non-factor" in the debate, said top Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom, suggesting that Perry must have been embarrassed to be on stage. "He had no jobs plan to talk about, and this was a jobs and economy debate," Fehrnstrom said.
"Rick Perry has been in this race for many weeks, we're 60 days away from early voting in Florida, and he has no plan."
"He's just disappeared," said top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens.
"He keeps saying, well, I've only been in this race eight weeks. It's like they don't grade on the curve in a presidential race. It doesn't matter. People don't care. The idea that the governor of Texas is playing the pity card is sort of distasteful."
Stevens' assessment was rough, and he's an obvious partisan. But Perry's campaign is clearly struggling. Reading his poll numbers is a vertiginous experience; the graph of Perry's RealClearPolitics poll average looks like a profile of the Matterhorn. Perry's support shot upward after he joined the race in mid-August; by the end of that month, Perry hit 38 percent in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 15 points ahead of Romney. Now, Perry is in the low-to-mid teens, between five and ten points behind Romney. Here in New Hampshire, which was never going to be Perry Country, his support was four percent in one recent poll and seven percent in another -- in both cases about 25 points in back of Romney. In Iowa, which is important to Perry's electoral calculations, Perry is falling well behind Romney, who hasn't really done much in the state.
No wonder David Carney was so frustrated by all the make-or-break talk. If Tuesday night's debate had really been a make-or-break test, then Rick Perry's candidacy would be broken. Of course, Perry is still in the race, and he has time -- though not a lot -- to recover. He also has a lot of money, about $15 million, to buy television advertising that could both bolster his image and tear down Romney's. Carney says the campaign will air TV ads soon -- he won't say precisely when -- but vows most will be positive ads introducing Perry to voters.
Compounding the bad news for Perry was the fact that Romney had another strong night. Talk to Republicans who don't like Romney, who would like to see a serious conservative emerge to challenge Romney, and they still concede that the former Massachusetts governor seems in full command of himself, his program, and his performance. Romney has participated in six Republican debates this year, and despite his obvious weaknesses -- the greatest being his Massachusetts universal health care plan -- he has not suffered any serious setbacks. And on Tuesday night, in particular, he was riding high, having announced earlier in the day that he had received the endorsement of popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Finally, there was Herman Cain. Riding a recent surge in the polls, Cain was positioned next to Romney at the debate -- Perry's position in three previous sessions -- and found himself, for the first time, the target of attacks from rivals. Most of those attacks focused on Cain's 9-9-9 economic plan and whether it is a serious blueprint for economic recovery or just an appealing slogan. At some times, Cain appeared to relish the attention. At others -- particularly when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said he at first thought 9-9-9 "was the price of a pizza" -- Cain seemed irritated by it.
Cain is Romney's third conservative challenger, after Bachmann and then Perry. Cain's rise just underscores the fact that, after several months of campaigning, the Republican field is still competing with itself for the right to challenge Mitt Romney one-to-one. For weeks, that seemed to be Perry's natural position. Carney, the top Perry aide, believes it still is.
"Ultimately, the battle for the nomination will be, I think, between Mitt Romney and someone else," he said after the debate. "Our goal is to make us that someone else."
The question after Tuesday night is whether Perry did anything at the debate to make progress toward that goal. The answer -- best expressed by Perry's own "not my strong suit" comment -- appears to be no.
"You really don't want to know what I think about that speculation," top strategist David Carney told reporters after the debate. "It's like some of your colleagues want to declare the race [over] at this moment."