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Perry under the microscope in MSNBC's "Ponzi scheme" debate

Texas Gov. Rick Perry during his "Ponzi scheme" moment Wed. night. Photos: Ed Bark

Rick Perry dug in his spurs, took the bull by the horns and possibly impaled himself Wednesday during his first night in a nationally televised debate arena.

The thick-haired (thick-headed?) Texas governor and lately the runaway frontrunner among Republican presidential candidates emerged without question as the life of the party during MSNBC's almost two-hour event at California's Reagan presidential library.

Perry unflinchingly derided Social Security as a historically fraudulent "Ponzi scheme" and "a monstrous lie to our kids," took a disbelieving weird science approach to climate change and said that President Obama either was either misinformed by inferior "intel" or is an "abject liar" for saying last spring that the border town of El Paso is safer than ever.

His repeated Ponzi scheme assertion -- a defense of Perry's 2010 book Fed Up! -- has been characterized as politically toxic in a one-on-one general election by both former vice president Dick Cheney and longtime GOP svengali Karl Rove. But Perry dismissed Rove as being "over the top for a long time" before adding a bit later, "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country." He also emphasized that no current Social Security recipient has anything to worry about.

No one could accuse him of piloting a plane to namby pamby land, even if Perry at one point threw a fleeting pity party for himself by lamenting, "I kind off feel like the pinata here at the party."

Mitt Romney, defrocked as the lead GOP candidate after Perry's entrance into the race, found himself looking newly "presidential" while standing just to the left of the Texas governor on home screens. Romney and his equally impressive coif were hardly provocateurs. But he did tactfully disagree with Perry on occasion while seeming to be in full possession of his job creator mantra.

Romney also figuratively patted Perry on the head after he was criticized for a now infamous and later scrapped executive order that mandated cervical cancer vaccines for Texas schoolgirls. Fellow Texan and perceived fringe candidate Ron Paul brought that one up, but Romney later said that Perry "had his heart in the right place." Subliminal message: even if he basically screwed up.

For his part, Perry said "I hate cancer" (now there's a platform we all can support) and "at the end of the day, I will always err on the side of saving lives." But he did concede that he "probably" should have consulted the legislature beforehand on his vaccine initiative.

Another candidate currently on the outer rim of the race, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, had Perry in mind when he said that Republicans "can't run from science" if they want to defeat President Obama.

But Perry said the "science is not settled" on climate change and that even "Galileo got out-voted for a spell." The reference was to the revered physicist/mathematician/astronomer whom Stephen Hawking has said is principally responsible for "the birth of modern science." But hey, he was jailed during The Inquisition after running afoul of Pope Urban VIII, who left the papacy hugely in debt and was reviled by his flock in later years.

The eight candidates surprisingly invoked Ronald Reagan's name rather sparingly. An at times grumpy Newt Gingrich led the charge with nine mentions while Paul and Rick Santorum each chipped in with four. Huntsman added three RRs and Michele Bachman, two. Perry threw in a lone reference, while Romney and businessman Herman Cain went Reagan-less. In fact, Bachman may have deployed the words "Obamacare" more often than the entire night's Reagan output. She of course wants it dead, as do all the other Republicans in the field.

Perry makes a point; Romney tries to see right through him.

The debate questioning was capably handled by co-moderators Brian Williams of NBC News and John Harris of Politico. Neither participated in MSNBC's prolonged post-debate analysis, which was led by the network's liberal quintet of Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton.

All agreed that Bachman was now reduced to an inconsequential "second tier" candidate. But Perry's performance of course was Topic A, with Schultz offering some backhanded praise after Matthews initially skewered the Texas governor for his attitude toward science. The United States risks being a "Yahoo country" if Perry is elected president, Matthews deduced.

But Perry came off as a hero to his corporate America base, Schultz said. "Most of all he didn't back down . . . I think Rick Perry is gonna get a lot of accolades tonight."

On the contrary, Perry "destroyed his candidacy," O'Donnell contended. "Perry cannot survive on his 'Ponzi scheme' campaign."

"The real headline tonight is 'Romney Lives,' " O'Donnell added. Reagan, who raised taxes 11 times during his two-term presidency, "would have been the wild lefty in the room," he said.

Sharpton agreed that Reagan would have come off as "the Democrat" in the current GOP field while Maddow declared Huntsman "the big loser" Wednesday night.

Matthews later tossed Perry a thorned bouquet: "All you have to do in this race is reach a minimal level of IQ, which Perry did tonight . . . He was good enough. He didn't make a fool of himself."

Veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who helped lead the McCain-Palin ticket to defeat in 2008, said that Perry "was almost like a boxer who ran out of steam in the middle to late rounds." Perry remains a "soft frontrunner" while Romney would be far more dangerous to Obama in a general election than the Texas governor, he said.

Still, Perry stirred the drink Wednesday night. Without him, what would they have talked about? MSNBC even accepted an anti-Perry ad from Paul during a commercial break. He was ridiculed as "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader" during his days as a Democrat.

But Paul's current poll numbers couldn't carry Perry's pom poms. And after Wednesday night, the game is officially on.