JIM LEHRER: For more, Judy Woodruff joins us now from Orlando.
Judy, you have been talking to Republicans, officials and otherwise, all day today. Is there a consensus on Perry’s performance?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, hi.
Yes, the consensus is it wasn’t his best night. Whether it’s folks who like the other candidates and were inclined not to like Rick Perry’s performance anyway, or people who were supporting Rick Perry, they — they acknowledge it wasn’t a good night for him.
And you heard some of that in the answer — in the excerpt we just played where he wanted to make the point about the flip-flopping that he alleges Mitt Romney is guilty of. He didn’t quite make the point as he wanted to, or simply because he takes positions that the crowd didn’t like, as on immigration, wanting to give favorable tuition, college tuition, to the children of illegal immigrants in Texas. The consensus is, he’s had better nights.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have the feeling, though, that it matters that much, that his performance in these debates is really that important to people who are real believers?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on the one hand, yes. I mean, all of these debates matter to some extent. There’s the audience — certainly, the big audience last night here in Florida, across the state on television, and the national audience.
But, on the other hand, I think you have to keep in perspective the big boogeyman for this crowd of Republicans is President Obama. The biggest applause lines last night were not criticism of Rick Perry, but criticisms of President Obama.
So, you know, on the one hand, while Rick Perry could have done better, I think everybody I talked to said, look, if he can come back in three weeks at the next debate, turn in a really strong performance, he can get the momentum turning back in his — in his direction again.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
What appears to be the dividing lines between Perry supporters and Romney supporters in this group?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Two very different groups of people supporting these men, Jim. I mean, they look at Rick Perry, they see a red-blooded conservative, somebody who grew up poor in the state of Texas. He invokes his background growing up as a cotton farmer. In fact, today, he talked about, “I wasn’t born with four aces,” clearly a reference to Romney.
On the other hand, Romney is a mainstream, more moderate Republican. He ran for president before. He is running a more disciplined campaign. But you don’t see the kind passion among Romney supporters that you do among Perry supporters, even after last night’s performance.
With Romney supporters, it’s, you know, they look at him, they see somebody who they think is electable, somebody who they think can go the distance and beat Barack Obama. And that’s what they’re focused on.
JIM LEHRER: Were there any other of the nine who kind of rose — rose to a semi-top-tier category, or was it all Perry and Romney?
JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an interesting question, Jim, because, a few weeks ago, one would have said Michele Bachmann. She was the one who was — not just because she won the straw poll in Iowa, but because she was turning in some pretty impressive debate performances.
But for the last few contests, where she’s been on stage with these other men, all men, it seems she’s almost faded into the background. And some say that’s because she hasn’t gotten as many questions. Others have other theories.
Last night, I would say the candidate who rose and got almost as much attention as Romney and Perry was Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania. You heard in that clip he was the one who really took it to Rick Perry on Texas, on his immigration policy.
So I think certainly Rick Santorum. And to some extent, Jim, you hear a lot of conversation from Republicans about Herman Cain, the former pizza company executive. They just like him. Who knows how far his campaign will go, but he has a lot fans.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, Judy, quickly, the — is there any question that all of these folks here, all Republicans, really see Florida as very important, not only to the nomination race, but maybe eventually to the race for president itself?
JUDY WOODRUFF: You put your finger on it, Jim.
In the primaries, Florida wants to be fifth. They want to be early next year in February. They have already got a date in mind. And when they — when Florida’s primary happens, it will be at that point the state with the biggest number of delegates at stake. They would be very big in the general election. Florida went Republican in 2000, as we know. It went for Obama in 2008.
So this is a battleground state, couldn’t be more important. Republicans here are fired up. And you can hear some of that behind me.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
Judy, thank you very much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, Jim.