Rick Perry Unleashes His Inner Cowboy in Fox News Debate

Michelle Cottle on Perry’s sass, Newt’s petulance—and why Ron Paul had the best moment of the debate night.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

As if we needed further sign that these presidential debates have degenerated into some deranged (and deranging) spectator sport, the sponsors of Monday night’s Myrtle Beach smackdown set up a popcorn-and-pretzel stand in the media filing center.

The evening’s spectacle did not disappoint. With time running out, most of the candidates—especially the anti-Romneys—brought their purest selves to the game.

Ron Paul’s crotchety meter was turned to 11, with the scrappy Texan refusing to give an inch no matter how hard the moderators tried to shame him or put words in his mouth. “Clearly you don’t understand my position,” he pushed back when pestered about his position on military spending. Even when the crowd turned loud and nasty on certain foreign-policy points, Paul refused to soft-pedal his anti-interventionism.

Neither would he pretend to feel bad about roughing up the competition. Arguably the best moment of the night: asked if he felt bad about his recent assault on Rick Santorum, Paul declared that his only regret was that he couldn’t fit more slaps into his ads—then proceeded to tick off additional parts of Santorum’s record that he finds objectionable. Take that, you hand-wringing, comity-obsessed wusses!

For his part, Newt Gingrich has clearly been honing his persona as condescending, arch, snide Big Thinker. Every word out of his mouth had that jaded, slightly exasperated tone that screams, “Why am I surrounded by such naive, intellectually defective children?” Poor Newt. How tiresome it must be to constantly be expected to defend his suggestion that poor kids be put to work as janitors and lunch ladies.

And how about that Ricky P? Finally, finally the Texas governor let his inner cowboy out to play. He conveyed passion and conviction and came across as solidly articulate. Not eloquent, mind you, but fancy talk has never been part of his shtick. Maybe it’s just that Perry has lowered expectations to the point that we expect him to do little more than stutter and drool, but he seemed in the zone and perhaps even to be enjoying himself: You wanna talk “utterly despicable” acts in times of war?! I’ll see you Marines peeing on corpses and raise you civilian hangings and beheadings!

Almost makes me look forward to Thursday night’s encore. Almost.