Actually, the site of the GOP presidential candidates debate wasn't the Reagan Ranch. It was the Reagan Library. But a ranch better fits the image Rick Perry wants to project and he probably hasn't been in a library in decades. So, we'll go with ranch.
The rules of the debate forbade the candidates from having notes or props on stage, but you just know that under his jacket Perry was carrying. And that he'd use it if necessary if Ron Paul persisted in pointing out that in the 1980s, while Reagan was President, Rick Perry supported Al Gore for President.
After the jump, how Perry did as the GOP frontrunner in his first scrimmage with the other candidates.
Overall, Perry did fine. With a few notable exceptions, he kept his "coyote special" out of sight and instead adopted a Reaganesque smile and folksiness that worked as well for Perry as it used to work for Reagan himself.
Opponents who hoped that Perry might make a gaffe were guilty of wishful thinking. Perry knows that it's impossible to take positions that are too crazy for the GOP primary voter. His only danger would be to appear to be crazy (see Michele Bachmann) and he avoided that. What could Perry say that could hurt him with this crowd? That Social Security is an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme? That global warming is unproven science? Well, he doubled down on those issues without sustaining any visible damage.
Those who hoped that the other candidates would knock Perry down a rung or two must have been equally disappointed.
Rick Santorum said he was "offended" that Perry used an executive order to impose human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations on Texas school girls. That might have been the only punch of the night that came close to landing, forcing Perry to admit that maybe he should have consulted the legislature, which quickly reversed the governor's order. Perry's confession probably absolved him of this past sin against conservative orthodoxy. No one seemed at all interested in the impact of all this on the incidence of cervical cancer.
Ron Paul brought up that in the 1990s Perry "wrote a really fancy letter supporting Hillarycare." Perry weakly defended himself by saying that when he wrote that letter he, in effect, didn't know what Hillarycare was.
Paul also brought up Perry's support for Al Gore, which Perry parried easily by bringing up Ron Paul's own abandonment of the GOP in the 1988 election.
Mitt Romney also used Al Gore to attack Perry, with a scripted line about Perry being no more being responsible for the conservative government in Texas than Al Gore was responsible for inventing the Internet. That elicited laughs, but probably more at Al Gore's expense than Rick Perry's.
Romney attacked Perry's position on Social Security, saying the Republican nominee can't be someone committed to abolishing Social Security, but instead must be someone who can make it financially secure. Perry would have none of it, doubling down on his assertion that Social Security is a "monstrous lie."
Perry took all the attacks in stride, never coming close to losing his temper, hardly ever even losing his cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, once even joking that he felt like the piñata at a party. Once his expression turned hard. It was when he said he never loses sleep over executing 234 people on death row. That caused the audience at the Reagan Library to burst out in wild applause. In fact, Perry was so comfortable, so in control, so sure of his command of the race, that he even felt safe quoting favorably Democratic hero John F. Kennedy and going out of his way to compliment Barack Obama for killing Osama bin Laden.
As for the other candidates?
Mitt Romney did his best to sound Presidential, and mostly succeeded. A debate format that gives you thirty seconds to answer doesn't lend itself to candidates with 59 point economic plans. That probably turned out to be a blessing for Romney, especially with that Texan standing next to him who is more comfortable with a pistol than a Powerpoint. The only area Romney was successful in drawing a distinction with Perry was on Social Security. Romney found himself on the defensive about his record in Massachusetts against Perry's contrast with job creation in Texas. Jon Huntsman piled on by bragging that Utah outdid both Massachusetts and Texas. Call it a draw. A draw favors the candidate ahead in the polls and that's Perry.
Michele Bachmann was the hero for any bar patrons watching on television and playing a drinking game, downing a shot every time someone said "Obamacare." Drink! For everyone else, she was pretty much ignored, by the questioners, by the other candidates, and by the audience.
Ron Paul was his usual doctrinaire self, arguing for dismantling the FAA, TSA, FDA, FEMA, even the border fence, which he warned could one day be used against Americans to keep us in. He said the airlines would keep us safe all by themselves, the drug manufacturers would ensure the safety and effectiveness of drugs, the free market would somehow solve all those problems that led to the creation of the government agencies in the first place because the free market wasn't providing those safeguards.
Rick Santorum highlighted a most remarkable turnabout in the American political parties' positions on foreign policy. Jon Huntsman said we've got to bring our troops home. Ron Paul argued that we ought to quit paying to air condition our troop tents in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would force our troops home. Michele Bachmann said President Obama was wrong to support the Libyan rebels' revolt against Moammar Gadhafi. Rick Santorum said he was opposed to the isolationism being expressed by the others on the stage. But that didn't keep him, too, from criticizing Obama on Libya, not for supporting the rebels, but for doing it for the wrong reason (something about doing it only because the UN told him to).
Newt Gingrich played his usual role of attacking the questioners for asking candidates about their policy differences with each other instead of with Barack Obama. He didn't want to talk about that and so what he said was quickly forgotten.
Herman Cain asked if you wanted to hear rhetoric or solutions. Mostly, though, it seemed that everyone just wanted to hear someone other than Herman Cain.
Jon Huntsman chose a strategy of saying nice things about those "two great governors over there, both of whom I like and admire." It was like he was positioning himself for the vice presidential slot on the 2012 ticket of either Perry or Romney.
The big winners? Rick Perry, the current and future favorite for the 2012 GOP nomination for president. And maybe, Barack Obama. You can be sure his campaign got plenty of sound bites that will be useful in the general election.