Scoring the GOP Debate at the Reagan Library

The surprise entry in this particular horse race was Jon Huntsman. After publishing an encouragingly well structured jobs plan this week, he fielded the few questions he received from the moderator in solid form. Sadly, there is still no measurable percentage of the GOP base which will take him seriously, but he put on a good show nonetheless.

The title card fight, of course, was between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. It did not disappoint. Unfortunately for the former frontrunner, Romney was set back on his heels several times when challenged in a way he’d not been in the last debate. He seemed defensive and small as compared to earlier contests. When you’re spending your time explaining, you’re losing, as the old saying goes. And Mitt spent far too much of his time doing that.

I’m not sure who began the current meme that Rick Perry was a weak debater. They were incorrect. Perry probably was hit the hardest of any of the candidates throughout the event and it was hard to discern a moment where he faltered. He was mostly Teflon through the entire ordeal. His answers rarely seemed evasive and he stood on his record and his previous positions without flinching.

In the one area where I suspected him to be the most vulnerable -- his comments about Social Security being a “Ponzi scheme” -- the governor fired back with polished flair. Answering the charge that this was “provocative” in nature, he responded by saying, “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language.”

It was one of two defining moments for him.

The second, and possibly the highlight of the evening, came near the end of the debate when Brian Williams tried to get Perry to back off on the death penalty, citing the number of executions in Texas. Whether it was a prepared statement or not, Governor Perry smacked down the moderator and drew a thunderous round of applause.

As debates go, this was actually a good one in spite of the moderators. The candidates were put through their paces and given a fair opportunity to shine. But unlike the previous engagements we’ve witnessed, this one seemed to have a clear winner. Rick Perry came out looking the most presidential, while Mitt Romney appeared to be searching for a way to recover from the upstart’s sudden popularity. How that will translate in the general election remains to be seen, but for one Wednesday night at the Reagan Library, Governor Rick Perry raised the bar in this primary to a new level.

Also see: Video: PJTV’s Roger Simon, Alexis Garcia and Tony Katz Score the GOP Presidential Debate