While tonight’s Republican presidential debate sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg TV (where the debate will be seen) may seem like yet another of an endless stream of such events since the summer began, it is no exaggeration to say this one will be crucial. Rick Perry’s presidential hopes are literally on the line this evening as he tries to rebound from three consecutive disastrous performances.

Expectations for Perry have been set so low that many believe even a halfway credible showing will be enough to pump some life into his flagging campaign. But if he thinks that’s all he needs to do, he’s fooling himself. Exceeding low expectations won’t cut it. The bar is actually set much higher for him than ever before. This time Perry must look, act and speak in a presidential manner.

Perry’s September swoon was every bit as historic as the collapse of the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves in baseball’s Wild Card playoff spot competition. Polls show he lost half of his support during the past few weeks. That’s an astounding drop, especially because it came only a month after he parachuted into the race. Though his stance on in-state tuition benefits for the children of illegal immigrants has helped erode his standing, most of the blame for his problems must be attributed to the way he looked in the debates. He looked and sounded tired and unfocused during the second half of each one. This led even his conservative supporters to question not only whether he could stand up to Barack Obama next fall but also if he is really qualified for the presidency.

So while even a mediocre performance might earn him some plaudits for improvement, exceeding low expectations doesn’t get him back where he was when he was lapping the field. After whiffing on a softball question that might have allowed him to skewer Romney on his flip-flops and left him looking like someone who had no business on the stage, the standard he must meet is actually much higher than that of the other candidates.

Most Americans didn’t know much about Perry before the debates, so his performances created the general impression that Perry is a bumbler. Whether that perception is correct or not is immaterial. It exists, and erasing it from the public mind and replacing it with a new image of a tough, competent and articulate candidate won’t be accomplished with a few practiced one-liners. It will require him to sound as good as Romney, who after more than five years of running for president is an excellent speaker and debater. He must have strong answers prepared on his weak points and be ready with incisive attacks on Romney’s inconsistent record on health care legislation. And he must follow up a good showing tonight with equally strong performances in the subsequent debates.

If Perry can do that, he has the money to stay in the race and outlast Herman Cain —who has been the principal beneficiary of his collapse — leaving him the only viable conservative still standing in the race. But this won’t be done by merely showing up and managing not to embarrass himself. If there is any candidate who can’t afford to play the expectations game tonight it is Rick Perry. He might have gotten away with a mediocre performance when he was riding high in the polls, but not anymore.

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