What do Republican voters love? Judging solely by applause levels in tonight’s debate—an admittedly imperfect metric—the death penalty ranks fairly high on the list. Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended his own record and his state’s tops-in-the-nation execution count, stating slowly but clearly that those who commit “heinous crimes against citizens” in the Lone Star State will face “ultimate justice.” Three cheers for state-sponsored killing!

Support is support, though, however you get it, and Perry was in a fight for his own political life. It wasn't quite two-men-enter-one-man-leaves, but it sometimes felt like it. As the GOP field’s newest entrant and arguable front-runner, Perry duked it out, going gov-o-a-gov-o with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his closest competition in the polls.

One key difference? Social Security. Perry doubled down on his assertion that the program was a “Ponzi scheme,” even if Karl Rove says otherwise. Pressed by the moderators, Perry declined to get technical, or philosophical: “I think any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of whats been going on in this country is going to have a tough time,” he said. “Talking about what folks were doing in the 30’s and 40’s is a nice intellectual conversation.” But intellectual conversation apparently wasn’t on Perry’s to-do list.

Romney, who, with his substantially more polished answers and handy data points, frequently appeared to be running for president of people who speak in complete sentences, had a somewhat different opinion about the program: Sure, Social Security has long-term funding difficulties—but none that can’t be solved with a little technocratic gimmickry. “It’s a program that’s working for millions of Americans,” he said, shortly after agreeing that its finances were broken. But the people, they like it: The GOP nominee, Romney insisted, “has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving it.” Mitt Romney wants you to know that he is prepared to be that nominee!

The other candidates on stage came prepared to say things as well, if that’s what getting enough votes to win the GOP nomination requires. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s opening bid included the following statements: “I have a plan!” and “I’ve done things!” Both true, I'm sure. Jon Huntsman seemed friendly, and orange. Ex-Godfather’s exec Herman Cain touted his own plan, a 9-9-9 pizza deal to save the economy. Bachmann, who earned executive experience as foster mother to 23, fretted that she was “very concerned about parental rights,” and, in the midst of a long rant about ObamaCare, also found time to say, rather emphatically, that “Kids. Need. Jobs.” Newt Gingrinch namechecked Art Laffer, Ronald Reagan, and himself, then proposed making English America’s official language. He also said he’d fire Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke today if given the opportunity. Huge applause! Almost as big as Perry’s death penalty line. (Let’s hope no one suggests executing Bernanke.)  

Sometimes the moderators amused themselves by asking Rep. Ron Paul what this whole libertarianism thing is all about. They asked about drug regulation, and airline safety, and a slew of other lazy libertarian gotchas. Paul did his best to explain in 90 seconds why federal regulation of the drug industry isn’t always so hot, and, by the way, neither is the long-lost drug war. Somewhere in the middle of the night, he stopped to offer a half complaint about President Ronald Reagan—the debate’s namesake and ghost-host (it was held at the Reagan Library). “The message of Reagan was great!" said Paul. "But the consequences," including huge deficits...well, not so much. The moderators, however, tended to ignore his responses, preferring instead to run Paul through endless variations on the same question: Really? You believe that? Are you actually serious?

Seriousness, however, did not appear to be high on the list of priorities for the evening. The debate, co-sponsored by Politico and MSNBC, wasn’t quite as exquisitely vapid as the CNN showdown hosted by John King in June, but neither was it as revealingly rough-and-tumble as the Fox News/Examiner face-off in August. Mostly it felt like a misfire. While declining to aggressively attack Gov. Perry for supporting mandatory cervical cancer vaccinations, Romney shrugged that “we’ve each taken a mulligan or two.” If there were any true justice in the world, tonight’s debate would end up as another one.

Read previous GOP debate wraps here and here.