Coming into Wednesday's Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, many of the questions revolved around Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newest entrant in the field and instant frontrunner.
How well would he perform his first time on the national debate stage? Would he emerge from the debate with his momentum intact or deliver up a gaffe that would stop it cold?
Also, how would he handle the inevitable questions about controversial attacks on entitlement programs in his book Fed Up, including his derision of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme?
The early indications after the debate carried on MSNBC were that he did nothing obvious to send him sliding out of frontrunner status.
Not that he didn't say some things that left many scratching their heads. Defending his skepticism of the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to global warming by saying the 17th century scientist Galileo was once in the minority, too, was odd to say the least. Galileo was on the side of scientific empiricism just like the 98 percent of climate scientists who say humans are making the planet warmer.
Despite all that, Perry seemed to pass his first test. And having done so, he should presumably gain in confidence which could make his debate performances going forward even stronger.
The debate also clearly demonstrated that Mitt Romney, the previous frontrunner and former Massachusetts governor, intends to make Perry pay a political price for trashing some of the most popular federal entitlement programs that exist.
That was another question coming into Wednesday's debate. Would Romney go on the offensive against Perry who had overtaken him as frontrunner? Or, would Romney continue to look past his Republican rivals as he has done for months and direct all his attacks against President Obama? Romney decided to do some of both.
The two men leading the Republican field went after each other early on who had the better record on job creation.
That part of the fight between the two men was crystallized by this exchange where they each charged that the other's gubernatorial predecessors did a better job with their respective state economies than the man on the stage who was the target of his attacks.
PERRY: ... Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.
ROMNEY: Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.
PERRY: That's not correct.
ROMNEY: Yes, that is correct.
That both men in this point and counterpoint contradicted conservative dogma that the private sector, not government, creates jobs seemed equally lost on Perry and Romney during that charged moment.
While this part of the debate had the feel of an early round in a prize fight where two fresh armed pugilists throw flurries of punches looking for an early knockout and come away tied on points, Romney later appeared to get the advantage when the discussion turned to Perry's book.
Perry adamantly stuck to his charge that Social Security was, besides a Ponzi scheme, a "monstrous lie" to future generations. He obviously decided if he was in for a dime, he might as well be in for a dollar.
Romney called Perry on the claim in the Texas governor's book that Social Security was a "failure."
And one got the sense that Romney would be calling Perry on this one all the way to the caucuses and primaries of early next year. And who could blame him? Hadn't Perry provided him with a gift that should keep on giving?
Heck, Romney even was getting some tag team help against Perry from Karl Rove, the George W. Bush White House political strategist who once worked for Perry, too.
Rove had earlier in the day called Perry's Social Security position "toxic." Perry was asked about that and let slip the cheery good ol' boy mask if just for a moment:
PERRY: You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. So I'm not responsible for Karl anymore.
As expected, Romney was attacked by Perry and others on the stage for signing into law as Massachusetts governor a health care law with an individual mandate. Obama has, unhelpfully to Romney, called if a model for the federal Affordable Care Act despised by conservatives as "Obamacare."
Asked by Politico editor John Harris if it was ever appropriate for the federal or state governments to mandate citizens to purchase health insurance, Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and Obama administration ambassador to China said "Absolutely not."
Huntsman proved to be an interesting case study. Of all the candidates on the debate stage, he was by far the most improved. His goal was to come across as the reasonable conservative with centrist appeal, common sense appeal and he struck the right note repeatedly.
He chided Romney for threatening to open a trade war with China if the Chinese don't take steps to end unfair practices, like keeping their currency artificially low. "And I'd have to say, Mitt, now is not the time in a recession to enter a trade war," Huntsman said.
Huntsman also continued his broadside against Perry for doubting the science behind evolution as well as the contribution of humans to climate change.
HUNTSMAN: Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science. We can't run from mainstream conservative philosophy. We've got to win voters.
If Huntsman had his strongest performance yet, answering questions with an incisiveness that was lacking in earlier appearances, the same couldn't be said for Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota whose support has fallen precipitously in recent polls, with much of it going to Perry who appeals strongly to the same social conservatives she had.
If one moment summed up how the debate went for her, it was her rambling answer to an immigration question. Asked how she would handle the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, she explained that she was recently in Miami and met with Cuban Americans who opposed giving government benefits to illegal immigrants.
Then she extolled the U.S. immigration system of the 1950s and early 1960s as a model the nation should return to. If she was aware that Cuban immigrants have received preferential treatment under U.S. immigration law since the communist takeover on their native island or that the immigration statutes of the 1950s contained racial restrictions, she didn't let on.
As for the other candidates, both Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, played the role they have in past debates.
Paul suggested that the free market could regulate itself if only the government would step out of the way. Responding to a question from NBC News anchor Brian Williams, he even went so far as to suggest that the invisible hand of capitalism could regulate car makers:
PAUL: ...And, I mean, do we need the federal government to tell us whether we buy a safe car? I say the consumers of America are smart enough to decide what kind of car they can buy and whether it's safe or not, and they don't need the federal government hounding them and putting so much regulations on that our car industry has gone overseas.
Unfortunately, there was no followup question to Paul involving classic, real life auto industry calamities like the exploding gas tanks of Ford Pintos of the 1970s or the rollovers of Ford Explorers with Firestone tires in the early 2000s.
Gingrich, meanwhile, aimed most of his aggressiveness not at his rivals for the nomination but at the news media, at one point accusing Politico's Harris of trying to instigate a disagreement between Republicans (aren't disagreements the point of debates?)
Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, continued to gamely fill out the stage. Cain plugged his 9-9-9 tax plan which would set rates for corporate, personal and national sales taxes at nine percent, explaining that religious tithing generally requires 10 percent and that the government should be able to get by with less than God.
Santorum pitched his plan which goes even further than Cain's, cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to zero. That played to Santorum's message that he's the truest conservative of all the candidates.
But like several other candidates on the stage, it doesn't appear to be his year as he struggles far back in the pack. After two hours of the debate, the race, like the night, still appeared to belong to Perry and Romney and probably in that order.
Separately, NPR's Scott Horsley had a chance to check a few facts. He writes:
No big whoppers here, but certainly some selective history. Newt Gingrich, for example, mentioned the recession that Ronald Reagan inherited from Jimmy Carter, but failed to mention the bigger, deeper recession that struck on Reagan's own watch in 1982 and '83, in which unemployment jumped to 10.4 percent.
Gingrich also discussed the strong job growth in the 1990s, suggesting that welfare reform was a contributing factor. He failed to mention the tax rates in that era were higher than the ones that today's congressional Republicans routinely describe as "job killing."
Romney appeared to link high oil prices with Obama administration limits on energy production. In fact, domestic oil production in 2010 was the highest in seven years. In a global oil market, it's doubtful that fluctuations in domestic production will have a meaningful impact on prices. It's also unclear what Romney meant when he accused the Obama administration of blocking nuclear plants. The current administration has been a strong backer of nuclear power, although enthusiasm dimmed somewhat in the wake of the Fukushima Daichi disaster.
Rick Perry toned down his opposition to Social Security, but repeated his claim that it's a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" for younger workers. He's correct that Social Security in its current form is not sustainable, but probably exaggerates the size of the shortfall. The latest trustees' report says that even without any changes, Social Security could keep paying all of its bills for the next 25 years and fully three-quarters of what retirees expect after that. Relatively modest fixes could put the system on a sustainable path.
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