Rick Perry, Human Piñata

At the CNN-Tea Party Debate in Tampa, Mitt Romney gave one of the strongest performances of his political career in front of a crowd that did not seem to care. From the standpoint of audience approval, with only a few exceptions, this was Rick Perry's night. Watching this man play to his natural constituency, it becomes increasingly apparent that Romney has a serious problem on his hands: Romney may be the superior candidate, but Perry's appeal transcends reason. The Romney-Perry rivalry of 2012 is beginning to take on the feel of Clinton-Obama 2008 -- and everybody remembers how that turned out.

Before we get to the debate and the debaters, let us briefly lament the overblown production values surrounding this CNN-Tea Party extravaganza. Has there ever been a presidential debate that took so long to get rolling down the tracks? The extended introductory setup was ridiculous, with each candidate's on-screen visage accompanied by a Hollywood-style nickname and a few seconds of pithy narration: Bachmann the firebrand, Santorum the fighter, Gingrich the big thinker, etc. It was like the opening credits sequence for a movie you don't want to see.

The candidates then emerged one by one, with Rick Perry offering a manly salute as he crossed the stage. This is the sort of gesture that will make half the country want to puke and the other half want to salute him back. Once assembled, the candidates and the audience stood for the singing of the national anthem, further delaying the proceedings at hand. If debate sponsors deemed it necessary to include the Star-Spangled Banner, then couldn't it have been sung before the live telecast? The candidates did not utter their first words until 10 minutes into the program, and 13 minutes elapsed before the first question was asked. For the viewing audience, this amounted an enormous waste of time.

Back to the debaters:

You can always tell how candidates are faring in the polls by the onstage real estate they have been assigned. Once again Rick Perry found himself occupying the piñata position, wedged between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. And once again he took incoming fire from all sides.

Romney got off to a powerful start as he asked the Texas governor to clarify his position on Social Security, yet it was Perry's all-too-transparent dodge that elicited the crowd's applause. Like a badass prosecuting attorney, Romney re-asked his question, addressing Perry as though he needed help understanding the English language. Although Perry responded with more tap-dancing, his obfuscations did not matter: the live Tea Party audience was clearly in Perry's corner, not Romney's.

Like Romney, Michele Bachmann showed good form in this debate, most dramatically when she all but accused Perry of selling out his principles in exchange for campaign contributions. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul also had their YouTube moments with Perry, who after the debate ended probably needed a stiff drink.

In spite of being everyone's target, and in spite of the sloppiness of his arguments, Perry did not in the final analysis appear diminished by the onslaught of attacks. At various points as Romney spoke, the camera caught Perry looking at his rival with amused disdain, an expression that brought to mind George W. Bush in his debates with Al Gore. This devil-may-care attitude may be the secret to Rick Perry's success as a debater: he refuses to take the process too seriously. Whether this wears well over the long haul -- that's a different question.