09/23/2011 10:17 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Perry V. Romney: Badminton At The Debate Hall

Over the course of their three debates together, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have developed a Punch and Judy routine that is starting to feel like a long-running sitcom. The two men take turns beating each other up for awhile, retreat to their corners long enough to let the other candidates jockey for air-time, then re-emerge for the next round of verbal fisticuffs. In the Orlando debate, sponsored by the unlikely team of Fox News and Google, Perry likened this back-and-forth to a game of badminton. It's probably the smartest thing he said all night.

Romney and Perry are well matched in these debates. The strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other. Romney the debater is crisp, businesslike, in command of his material, and as bloodlessly efficient as a German luxury sedan. Perry the debater is sloppy, sentimental, uncertain of his facts, and brimming with the sort of down-home folksiness that makes Republican audiences go weak in the knees. As sparring partners, they are fascinating to watch, not only for their stylistic differences but for the degree to which neither fully outmaneuvers the other.

On matters of affect, Perry borrows heavily from Ronald Reagan. During his opponents' attacks, Perry plasters a bemused smile on his face, an expression that comes straight out of Reagan's playbook. Like Reagan, Perry is blessed with a voice that is easy on the ear, and his calm, almost laconic way of speaking lends him an air of neighborly authority. Great importance is attached in debates to the visual side of the equation, and appropriately so, but for politicians a good voice can be nearly as advantageous.

Perry recalls Reagan in another key way: he seems to be enjoying himself in these televised set-tos. Is Perry putting on an act or genuinely having fun? We have no way knowing, of course, but this attitude of insouciance is an enormous asset. All too often candidates cannot hide their discomfort and annoyance at having to take part in debates -- think of the two George Bushes. Rick Perry, on the other hand, looks like he can hardly wait for the mud-wrestling to begin.

Yet on matters of substance, Perry remains startlingly unprepared. Asked a theoretical question about Pakistan losing control of its nuclear weapons, the governor gave an incoherent response that amounted to a pile of steaming dung. It is remarkable that a man so obviously lacking in foreign policy credentials does not make a greater effort to bone up; in this regard he is more Sarah Palin than Ronald Reagan.

Unlike his opponent, Mitt Romney is thoroughly fluent in matters of policy. Laying out his economic plan and defending Social Security, Romney supplied details in a way that exposed Perry's platitudes as empty rhetoric. If we judge purely on technique, Romney has emerged as the strongest debater of the 2012 Republican series, making major improvements over his 2008 performances.

But he still seems less than fully human, especially standing next to the all-too-human Governor Perry. Even Romney's one-liners come off like the awkward words of a dorky dad whose attempts at humor make his kids roll their eyes. The punch line is less funny than the incongruity of Romney joking around in the first place.

Quick thoughts on a few of the other participants:

With each debate, Michele Bachmann recedes further in the distance. She has become the star of her own limited-release movie -- and the title of that film is Honey, I Shrunk the Candidate.

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson got off the line of the night -- "My neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs" than Barack Obama -- but he still looked like a bystander who had wandered onto the debate stage by mistake.

Herman Cain continues to serve as the spice in these debates, even though his repertoire of talking points never expands beyond the bumper sticker level. Memo to Cain: when you pronounce "Chile," the accent goes on the first syllable, not the second.

As for Rick Santorum, the irony of this candidate participating in a Google-sponsored debate is almost too rich, given that his name has become synonymous with the search engine in the nastiest possible way.

Which raises a question: Why did a company like Google choose to lend its name to an exercise so pointedly ideological? From the standpoint of voter enlightenment, this debate was the weakest of the cycle so far. Questions and answers alike flowed from a single premise, relentlessly flogged by one and all: Barack Obama is the Great Satan who must be dispatched back to the fires of hell from whence he came. The questions from the three Fox News personalities lacked even the pretense of critical distance: Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace were there not to probe the candidates, but to supply a platform for their talking points. This debate offered a whole lot of echo chamber and precious little compare-and-contrast.

That said, one or two moments briefly managed to move the discussion beyond the usual Fox News agitprop. The most illuminating of these was a video question from a gay soldier who wanted to know whether a Republican president would reinstate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that was repealed just this week. The question went to Rick Santorum, appropriately enough, who bobbed and weaved and said that "sex should not be an issue" in the military. Santorum's answer was nonsensical because his position is nonsensical, and his conflation of sexual orientation and the sex act provided more insight into Rick Santorum than it did into the issue.

Even more noteworthy than Santorum's ridiculous response was the way the live audience booed the soldier who asked it. In the past three debates Republican audiences have cheered Rick Perry's prodigious record as a killer of death row inmates, hooted and hollered over the idea of patients dying because they lack health insurance -- now they have heckled an American soldier serving his country because he is gay. And not one of the nine candidates stood up for him. The silence of the men and women onstage, more than the thousands of words they uttered, spoke volumes about the would-be Republican nominees.