By Ken Tucker
Updated October 18, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The “Western Republican Presidential Debate,” televised by CNN, began with a heavily produced intro that made sure you knew the debate took place in Las Vegas. A gritty-voiced narrator ran down the current odds for the candidates, their pictures placed on playing cards tossed onto green felt. The poker game where “the stakes are high”! Where Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul are “wild cards”! Wayne Newton was in the audience!

Moderator Anderson Cooper was, in this scenario, the dealer representing the house, the Venetian casino. He sure had his hands full. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were at each other’s throats; Herman Cain was condescended to by most of the panel (“I’ll bump plans with you, brother,” said Perry to Cain — ick); Newt Gingrich looked like he was counting cards; Michele Bachmann went all-in on a gratuitous attack on President Obama; and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum spent most of their time folding.

To drop the gambling metaphor, Perry had a rough night. He was booed when he persisted in bringing up an old story about Romney hiring illegal aliens to work on his property: “You hired illegals; [that is] the height of hypocrisy.” He was booed again when Cooper asked him a question and he chose instead to respond to something Cain said, saying sneerily to Cooper, “You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like [sic] I want to.”

“It’s been a tough couple of debates for Rick,” said Romney. And this was supposed to be a tough debate for Cain, who’s rising to the top of a number of polls, and the media had predicted the pizza executive would be the main target. Wrong again, news media.

Bachmann made for good TV by providing the rhetorical crazy. She said she’d build a “double-walled fence on [sic] the entire border.”

She said, “I’ll tell you who has an illegal alien problem: President Obama. It’s his uncle and his aunt who are illegal aliens.”

She said, “I’m Michele Bachmann, and this is one night when I hope that what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.” Ocean’s Seven, baby! Where was Clooney?

Gingrich came off most forcefully in excoriating the concept of the so-called “super committee” and slashing defense spending, referring to “historically illiterate politicians in both parties … suicidally stupid,” although he added, “I’m a hawk but I’m a cheap hawk.” He was also a scold, primly reprimanding his opponents for “maximizing bickering.” Which is another term for “televised Vegas debate.”

More and more, Romney is starting to look like a brunet version of 7th Heaven‘s Stephen Collins, with a wide smile and the demeanor of a smiley minister. This pose helped him a few times, making him sound like a voice of reason. At one point, Santorum started losing his train of thought during his accusation of Romney as an architect of “Obamacare.” When Romney interrupted Santorum’s dithering to answer him, Santorum started whining, “You’re out of time, you’re out of time!”

Too much of CNN’s time was taken up by this foolishness of having people in the audience, on Twitter and Facebook, ask the same questions that a moderator like Cooper could have asked more quickly and concisely. This social-network democracy was “out of time.”

Twitter: @kentucker