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GOP Presidential Debate: Everyone Attacks Rick Perry, But Crowd Cheers His Grotesque Legacy of Executions

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's debut on the GOP presidential debate stage offered a scenery-chewing performance, and an enthusiastic reception for the executions on his watch.

Amid the hardest economic conditions since the Great Depression, last night's debate among the contenders for the Republican Party's presidential nomination was expected to turn on issues of job creation and government spending. But the biggest applause line of the night was a cheer for death and vengeance.

When co-moderator Brian Williams of NBC noted the 234 executions that took place in Texas on the watch of Gov. Rick Perry, the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential contest, the crowd assembled in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, roared its approval. Asked if he ever lost sleep worrying that one of those executed might have been innocent, Perry replied, "No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all." [Video via TPM.]

Yet Perry is believed to have done just that in the case of at least one man, Cameron Todd Willingham, and perhaps others.

The evening was all about Perry, for whom the Reagan forum marked his first debate as a presidential candidate, having only leaped into ring several weeks ago, on the very day that Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., won the Iowa straw poll. Since his entry into the race, Perry has stolen the thunder of both Bachmann and former frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and just about everyone else in the field. Particularly miffed is Rep. Ron Paul, Texas, who has seen much of his neo-libertarian agenda lifted by Perry.

Perry v. Romney

Mainstream media love establishment figures, so last night's contest is framed by most as a great showdown between Romney and Perry. And, indeed, the two went at each other [video] early in the evening over their respective job-creation records, with Perry claiming that he created as many jobs in Texas in the last three months as Perry did during his whole term in office in Massachusetts. But Romney did hold out a back-handed valentine to Perry when the Texan was taken to task for the executive order he wrote that mandated vaccines for schoolgirls against the sexually transmitted HPV virus -- a move that many saw as a cynical attempt to fill the coffers of the vaccine-maker. "We've each taken a mulligan or two," Romney said with a sheepish smile. Call it Romney's attempt to inoculate himself from the right-wing ire directed at him for having implemented in Massachusetts a health-care program that was used as a model for the Obama plan that so invigorated the Tea Party movement.

Asked if he was a member of the Tea Party, Romney punted: "I don't think you carry cards in the Tea Party," he said. Last week, the Tea Party-allied group FreedomWorks pulled out of a Tea Party Express event for its inclusion of Romney.

Perry v. Paul

Far more interesting than the Perry-Romney rivalry was the consternation exhibited by Ron Paul, who is running third in the polls, toward his fellow Texan. While Perry is polling in first place nationally, in New Hampshire, which holds the season's first primary, Paul and Perry are running neck-and-neck behind Romney. For Perry to have a shot in the Granite State, he needs to siphon off Paul's voters, and could do so, since his agenda -- based on states' rights, deregulation of business, and a severe slashing of federal government programs -- is so close to Paul's. So Paul has unleashed an attack on Perry in an ad airing in New Hampshire [video] that highlights Perry's role as a state campaign chair of Al Gore's presidential campaign (Perry entered politics as a Democrat) and Paul's support of Ronald Reagan's run for the GOP nomination. The ad fails to mention that Perry worked for Gore's 1988 campaign, not his 2000 run; or that the Reagan campaign supported by Paul was his 1976 attempt at the nomination and not Reagan's successful 1980 win.

When asked if Perry "is less conservative than meets the eye," Paul concurred. Speaking to Williams and co-moderator John Harris of Politico, Paul said of Perry, " He wrote a really fancy letter about Hillarycare so we probably ought to ask him about that." Paul was referring to a letter penned by Perry when he was his state's agriculture commissioner, commending Clinton on her effort to reform the health-care system.

Perry shot back: "I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan that said, 'I'm going to quit the party.'" Perry's camp has been highlighting that 1987 Paul missive, in which Paul decried the administration's deficit spending.