Paul Greenberg

It was only fitting that the Republican presidential hopefuls -- or at least eight of them out of a growing crowd -- would be invited to gather at the Reagan Library in the once Golden State, whose parlous economic condition now mirrors that of the country.

It was an occasion for the candidates to have their picture taken with Nancy Reagan, who's still holding her own as a link with the GOP's glory days. Once again the country seems waiting, in the Gipper's words, for a new beginning, for morning to come to America.

But by the debate's welcome end, the crowd of candidates had brought at least as much darkness as light to the discussion. For as the debate lengthened, so did the shadows. Little new was said; it felt more like twilight in America. Where was that old Reaganesque optimism?

The platitudes and cliches flew, but few stick in the mind. There were some embarrassing moments (Ron Paul provided most of them, as expected), but who, except for the usual political junkies, will remember anything that was said in this debate come next week, let alone next month or next year?

This was Rick Perry's debut in a national presidential debate, so naturally enough he had the spotlight. No doubt his fans were impressed; others weren't.

Gov. Perry comes across as a George W. Bush without the winning personality behind the dyslexia. This unapologetic Texan stuck with his attacks on Social Security ("a Ponzi scheme") and Global Warming theory, which was renamed Climate Change when the evidence for it proved tricky.

The governor's case against both may have some basis, but he spoke as if daring his national audience to disagree. A soft word turneth away wrath; his manner invites it. Style can be all in these matters.

Despite the setting, Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment -- "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" -- was honored mainly in the breach. And soon this wide-open debate became essentially a two-candidate contest: Mitt Romney vs. the candidate who isn't.

In Iowa, the non-Romney was Michele Bachmann. She was present at this debate, but only present. The non-Romney these fickle days is Rick Perry. When the Texas governor started slugging early on, Mr. Romney more than held his own, but somehow remained above the fray, that is, presidential. As in his riposte when Gov. Perry did his Social Security Equals a Ponzi Scheme number. The former governor of Massachusetts finessed that issue by reminding his party that Social Security needs to be mended, not ended:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.