Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) sought a third term, and his Democratic challenger, former Houston mayor Bill White, looked forward to the debates. Perry, however, simply refused to share a stage with White. It made the governor look like something of a coward, but Perry preferred that to looking like a fool.

A year later, one of Perry’s obvious weaknesses is catching up with him. The Texan is leading in each of the national polls, but his debate performances are genuinely hard to watch — the guy’s just awful in this format. It’s not just one aspect, either. Perry comes across as ignorant, unprepared, and kind of bored. What’s worse, as John Dickerson noted, “With each successive debate in this campaign, his performance gets worse.”

And while Perry’s first two debate performances caused whispers from the GOP establishment about whether the governor is ready for prime time, the reaction from Republican voices today is a veritable Texas stampede.

[C]onservative pundits have been openly dumping on Perry as a candidate — a mere month and a half after he entered the race and rocketed to the top of the polls.

Bill Kristol published an editorial at the Weekly Standard, stating the magazine’s official reaction to the debate: “Yikes.” Kristol negatively reviewed nearly all the candidates — pining for Chris Christie to save the GOP by entering the race. As for Perry’s performance, Kristol writes: “But no front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry. It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him.”

Rich Lowry wrote on Fox News: “A few weeks ago, the question was how far and fast he would ascend; now, after his third debate, it’s how much he’ll drop.” he also wrote on National Review: “I really thought Perry would get better, but he hasn’t.”

RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote late Thursday night: “Rick Perry was a train wreck in this debate.”

That’s really just a small sampling. If there are Republicans impressed with Perry’s skills as a candidate, they’re hiding well today.

So, is he screwed? Will Perry join the list of candidates who entered late, caused a stir, and then quickly fizzled? Maybe, but I wouldn’t write him off just yet.

For one thing, not that many regular folks — i.e., those not deeply involved in politics — actually watch these debates. For another, Republicans have nominated plenty of presidential candidates who looked awful when debating, including Reagan and George W. Bush. For all I know, conservative voters find this endearing — the right may not care for “slick.”

But I’m especially reluctant to write off Perry because, when push comes to shove, it’s a two-person race for the nomination. Rank-and-file Republican voters will have to decide between the guy who looks like an idiot during debates and Willard, the moderate Massachusetts multi-millionaire, best known for flip-flopping, getting rich by laying off American workers, and being part of a religious minority the GOP’s theocratic wings finds offensive.

Perry didn’t rocket to the front of the pack because voters were wildly impressed with his record and persona; he became the frontrunner because a lot of conservatives were looking for a credible anti-Romney. The cringe-worthy debate performances — and the ensuing coverage — are likely to cost Perry some support, but fundamentally, the forces that put Perry out in front haven’t changed.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.