09/07/2011 10:52 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

In the Shadow of Reagan: Rick Perry's Presidential Debate Debut

The presidential debate debut of Texas Governor Rick Perry at the Ronald Reagan Library was neither a triumph nor a disaster, leaving the score at the end of the night essentially unchanged.

When the debate began, Perry seemed nervous, a figure far more subdued than the rootin-tootin cowboy who munched corn dogs and charmed reporters at the Iowa State Fair a few short weeks ago. You could read in his somber face the coaching he had undergone, the warnings from his handlers to tone down the bravado. As the evening progressed, Perry grew calmer and got better. If he never quite soared, neither did he fall flat on his face.

From the get-go, moderator Brian Williams of NBC set about provoking a Perry-Romney pissing match. Their first exchange took the form of a volley of boasts and statistics over which state had created more jobs, and in this early back-and-forth Romney got the better of his rival. Perry fared somewhat better brushing off a question from co-moderator John Harris of Politico about criticism from other high-level Republicans. Perry did not let the question rattle him, standing by his description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme." Politically this may be a dubious position, but he left little doubt as to what he believes.

Perry was less convincing in his feeble attempts to defend Texas's disastrous graduation rates and inadequate health insurance coverage. Talking about climate change, Perry sounded downright dim. In these moments Perry evoked George W. Bush, not because of the men's shared accent and physical tics, but because both have a tendency to sound like students bullshitting their way through an oral examination for which they have not prepared.

One of the strangest, most fascinating moments of the debate involved Brian Williams asking Perry about his vigorous support of the death penalty. The mere mention of Texas's high execution rate drew applause from the spectators at the Reagan Library, leading Williams to follow up by asking Perry why he thought the crowd had reacted so enthusiastically. On this point Perry gave his best shot at defending the indefensible, but the damage had already been done: the audience's reaction only served to underscore the sense of bloodthirstiness.

From a purely stylistic standpoint, Perry played a bit too much to camera. He is an interesting person to watch, if only to marvel at that amazing head of hair. As Bill Clinton recently put it, the Texas governor is a "good-looking rascal." These physical assets notwithstanding, when Perry speaks into the lens, he too often sounds as though he is trying to sell us a Buick.

Perry may have grabbed the evening's headlines, but of the other candidates onstage, Mitt Romney had an especially strong night. His best moment came when he said something nice about Rick Perry after others on the stage had ganged up on him. Romney may not be the flashiest of debaters, but his manner is steady as she goes, and that will play well over the long haul.

Michele Bachmann failed to leap off the screen in this debate. How did Bachmann flame out so quickly? With her hair bouffed up like a pan of Jiffy-Pop popcorn, she seemed like a washed-up rock star who keeps singing her old hits over and over in the hope they'll somehow set the charts on fire again.

For Jon Huntsman the debate was another swing and a miss. Obviously he is an intelligent and thoughtful man, but he did not avail himself of the opportunity to distinguish himself from his competitors. As a performer Huntsman is a bit smarmy, in a way that conjures memories of independent presidential candidate John Anderson, who ran against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Huntsman also has a physical oddity that is exacerbated in television close-ups: independently operating eyebrows, particularly the one on his right side, which appears to have a life of its own.

For better or for worse, this debate was about Rick Perry. At one point in the proceedings the Texas governor likened himself to the "piñata at the party." If so, it's a role he had better get used to playing. Because after tonight's event he remains at the head of the pack, with a prominent target on his back.