The Mitt and Rick Show

Romney won on points, but Perry drove the storyline. Michelle Cottle on the two-man race.

09.08.11 2:58 AM ET

Perry. Perry. Perry. That’s all we heard heading into Wednesday night. Would he show up? Would he screw up? Would he whip out his 12th Man towel during breaks to fire up the crowd? With such hyperventilation over the governor’s debate debut, it’s a wonder the rest of the field bothered to take the stage.

The goal of nearly all the candidates not named Perry, then, was to convince us they matter. To brush back the narrative that this race is fast becoming the Mitt ’n’ Rick Show. To get someone—anyone—to pay attention to them.

Given close to two hours, no one cleared that hurdle. Not Michele Bachmann, who needed to regain some ground but instead managed to come across as both brittle and timid. Not Jon Huntsman, who was clearly feeling feisty but couldn’t manage to convey a clear message in response to most questions. Not even Ron Paul, whose role in these dog-and-pony shows has been reduced to fielding serial questions about whether he would really do away with seemingly vital government service X, Y, or Z. As for Rick Santorum, the basic question remains: why?

Oh, sure, candidates now and again squeezed off a good line. Huntsman’s joke about our needing a president who could step out from behind the teleprompter was a nice dig at Obama. And Herman Cain’s pitch for his 9-9-9 plan was inspirational: “If 10 percent is good enough for God, then 9 percent ought to be good enough for the federal government.”

More broadly, Perry’s presence seemed to have most everyone swinging for the fences. Huntsman grinned maniacally at both “great governors,” as he called Perry and Romney, while slamming their records vis-a-vis his term as chief executive of Utah. A couple of times, Newt Gingrich got so surly and snarky and self-congratulatory that I was transported back to 1995. And Paul was, if anything, even more crotchety than usual, ranting incoherently about silver dimes and the evils of the minimum wage.

But overall, Romney and Perry held the spotlight, beginning with the very first exchange over job creation, which sent both men into a downward spiral of stat-swapping bitch-slappery that left even moderator Brian Williams chuckling.

I thought Mitt clearly won on points. He looked and sounded presidential, save for the overabundance of hair product. Perry, by contrast, stammered and lapsed into his habit of delivering vague platitudes and ducking any question that called for specifics—like which climate-change-skeptical scientists he finds most compelling.

That said, Perry is clearly more in tune with the mood of the GOP base, as evidenced when the audience burst into spontaneous applause in response to Brian Williams’s bringing up Texas’s first-in-the-nation rank when it comes to capital punishment. And more than once, Perry’s mannerisms and manner struck me as eerily Bush-like.

Not that the finer points of the men’s performance matter. What counts is that they kept the narrative all about them, which means they won and everyone else lost. At least for one night.