I'm impressed with Rick Perry's damage control . He's managed to turn a horrific, campaign-ending gaffe into a hilarious, potentially-campaign-ending gaffe. Well, we of course cannot write off his $15 million kitty yet, and there might be a boomerang effect because of all the free media he's getting. David Letterman's Top Ten List might actually be funny tonight.
Problem is... he is supposed to be one of the brightest stars of the GOP. That's what he was billed as when he entered the race. These debates are supposed to showcase the party at its finest. Perry's brand is tied to the GOP brand.
Both parties have their share of crank candidates, and debates can often make general election strategists very nervous. The very old but still powerful conventional wisdom holds that Americans won't elect someone who makes hyper-Democrats feel excited about being Democrats or hyper-Republicans excited about being Republicans. This mauve-middle bias may not be good or fair, but it exists. That's why, even in the debates, the GOP candidates have to calibrate their answers a bit more than they'd like to.
In the same vein, much as the Clinton/Obama debates of 2007/8 galvanized Democrats and made the Democratic Party look good, the GOP has to realize that their debates leave a residue, too. They reflect on the party's ability to govern.
And if one of your top tier candidates can't remember what he wants to do, and the media covers nothing but that... and if another top tier candidate is fighting back sexual harassment allegations... it just makes the party brand suffer.