Ken Tucker
September 07, 2011 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Rick Perry secured his place as a central TV personality in the next presidential election by using what he himself called “provocative language,” terming Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and “a monstrous lie,” calling President Obama an “abject liar” regarding border security, and drawing enthusiastic applause when it was pointed out that the state he governs has executed over 200 people under his watch. Hot dang, Perry was a pistol; he may single-handedly revive the Western as a viable TV genre in 2011-12.

The Wednesday-night Republican candidates debate, which aired on MSNBC and was moderated by NBC anchor Brian Williams, was at times a brawling spectacle, a kind of political Big Brother house erected inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. It was the kind of night in which Jon Huntsman, offering a pallid performance, actually had to defend himself for believing in science. Perry, sticking up for his own dubiety toward climate-change science, said blithely, “The science is not settled about this…. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.” Presumably Perry was referring to the 17th-century Catholic Church, which didn’t really “vote.”

But there was no stopping the assured Perry. “Maybe it’s time to use some provocative language in this country,” said Perry in responding to his opponents’ outrage at the remarks he made regarding Social Security.

Mitt Romney, one of Perry’s chief adversaries this night, tried to go down the provocative route occasionally. “This president’s gotta go,” he said of Obama. “He’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t have a clue how to get this country going again.”

Ron Paul was — well, Ron Paul: “Just remember, 9/11 came about because there was too much government,” said Paul. He also said the “fence” the government tries to maintain against illegal immigration “may well be used against us and keep us in.” In short: Ron Paul will always detest government.

But what about the former belle of the media ball, Michele Bachmann? She looked rather dazed and confused throughout much of the debate. Since her chief sound bite was that “in Mexico, we’re dealing with narco-terrorists,” one might charitably suggest that she was weary from having watched a number of episodes of Breaking Bad in an exhausting, addling marathon.

It’s too bad this debate was limited to airing on MSNBC — couldn’t NBC have preempted Minute to Win It and America’s Got Talent for the opportunity to see Rick Perry assert with foxy irony, “I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party,” all the while knowing he was dominating the proceedings? Now, that’s American talent…

Twitter: @kentucker

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