By Francis Wilkinson

Rick Perry is not going to win a debate until Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and perhaps a half dozen other Republican candidates running for president all call in sick. He is that bad. At a debate focused solely on the economy, the Texas governor announced that he would be laying out an economic plan "over the next three days."

The next three days?

Why arrive at an economics debate and promise that, just as soon as it's over, you'll be discussing your economic plan? Did Perry's campaign team not have a calendar with "Bloomberg-Washington Post economic debate" marked in red pen? Or do they mistrust their candidate's competence so deeply that they preferred not having a plan to letting their candidate try to explain it on television?

Perry's campaign isn't dead. (It has money, thus political life.) But having lost another round last night, and badly, Perry is looking at yet another debate six days from now in Nevada. Even though the press will be grading him on a generous curve, there is no reason to believe Perry will be any readier for the prime-time rigors of discussing national policy -- or even delivering canned zingers intended to make frontrunner Mitt Romney look bad.

So what does Perry do? That's what I asked Republican strategist Alex Castellanos after the debate last night.

"Go nuclear," said Castellanos, who worked for Romney in his 2008 presidential race. "Tomorrow."

Perry's campaign announced last week that it has $15 million in cash on hand. That's enough to produce some deeply unpleasant television for Romney in a few carefully selected media markets. October seems early in the game for a barrage of "nuclear"-level negative ads (in the form of a recitation of Romney's past support for policies and views loathed by the Republican base, for example). But with each succeeding debate flop, the primary season seems to be speeding past Rick Perry.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

-0- Oct/12/2011 21:36 GMT