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First rule: Whatever they are, they’re not debates. Lining up eight candidates on the same stage and giving them 10 minutes each (if they’re lucky!) to blurt out the latest talking points is not a debate.

But whether you call it a cattle call, a beauty pageant, or a slug fest, this week’s show from the Reagan Library was worth watching – if only to see what a sorry bunch of candidates Republicans are putting forth. Seeing all eight presidential wannabes together on stage, my first reaction was: If this is the best the Republican Party has to offer … God save the republic!

Because it was his national debut, most of the questions went to Rick Perry, who turned out to be just what we expected: cute, glib, folksy and cocky – yet politically clueless. Only someone already determined to lose the election would devote his national political debut to calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and “monstrous lie.” Even Dick Cheney called Perry’s characterization of Social Security extreme. And when Dick Cheney says you’re extreme, believe me, you’re really extreme.

But Perry got the most flack from fellow Republicans over the inoculation campaign against cervical cancer he mandated on all 12-year-old girls in Texas. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann accused him of ignoring parental rights. Ron Paul said the fact that he did so by executive order proved Perry was a closet big government-type.

Perry also tripped up on the question of states’ rights. After asserting several times that states can handle everything from health care to immigration better than the federal government, he contradicted himself. When asked how to secure the border, he answered: more federal agents. Why are so many Texans without health insurance? Not enough help from the feds. Unlike Ron Paul, in other words, Rick Perry is against the federal government – except when he’s for it.

Given that Texans are still battling the worst wildfires in history, Gov. Perry took a big risk by showing up at all. But nobody challenged him for putting his own political career ahead of dealing with a statewide crisis. And moderator Brian Williams missed the chance to challenge Perry over the fact that one of the reasons Texas is having such a hard time fighting the fires is because Perry’s latest budget slashed funding for both the state Forest Service and volunteer fire departments. Perry told people to pray for rain, instead.

Perry ducked another bullet on the death penalty. He insisted he lost no sleep over the fact that he had presided over a record 234 executions – the very mention of which got the most applause of the night. But Williams failed to follow up with a question about Cameron Todd Willingham, executed for arson in 2004, even after new forensic evidence proved he was not guilty.

While Perry held his own, Mitt Romney put on his best performance so far. He was much more comfortable, effectively cited his combination of business and government experience and directed most of his fire against Barack Obama, without hesitating to challenge Perry on key points. Romney’s demeanor and words were clearly intended to convey a strong message to the party faithful: I’m the one who can win the general election; Rick Perry can’t.

The irony is that Romney continues to run away from his success with health care. Massachusetts ranks No. 1 in the number of people with health insurance; Texas is dead last. It’s the one area that proves he’s a more effective leader than Perry. Yet Romney refuses to take credit for it, because he’s afraid of alienating the tea party.

As for the others, on the issues, Jon Huntsman made the most sense of all – which is why he has no chance of getting the nomination. Michele Bachmann struggled to stay in the game, but failed. Nobody agrees with her assertion that we’d be better off in Libya if Gadhafi were still in power. The rest of them – Santorum, Paul, Gingrich and Cain – appeared as inconsequential as, in fact, they are.

Next time, just put Romney and Perry on stage. Because that’s the only remaining question: Will the Republican Party go far right or extreme right?

In the end, those most delighted with the show from Simi Valley were probably Democrats, not Republicans. After seeing their likely opponent on stage, Democrats worried about Obama’s chances for re-election are suddenly feeling a lot more confident.

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