Rick Perry won the debate. A debate is not like a track event; the constestants do not share the same starting position. Perry went into the debate as the clear frontrunner and, while he took some punches, he did nothing that would lose votes. He had only one rough moment, and that was his response to an e-mail asking why the public had never been allowed to vote on the Trans-Texas Corridor. Perry answered that they had voted on a portion of the plan. That’s a stretch. They voted for a constitutional amendment creating a mobility fund, not on the gigantic plan for toll roads everywhere. His response to charges that he had taken large contributions from involved parties–that his campaign transactions were transparent–was true but not on point. That was the one moment in the debate when he looked off his game; his eyes were moving around, as if he was looking for the exit. Which, as it turned out, he was.

His best moments were his criticism of Kinky Friedman’s racially tinged remarks (“Mr. Friedman, words matter”) and his defense of what Chris Bell called “high-stakes testing.” Perry upheld testing as essential to holding schools accountable; Bell later said that he didn’t oppose standardized tests but rather that so much time was spent on them because so much was riding on how students performed.

My scorecard had Bell in second place. He took an oddball question about what are the term limits for Texas governors and hit a home run: There is no term limt for Texas governors. That’s why we should be horrified. Now Rick Perry is saying he might run again. That’s reason enough not to vote for him. One of the questions to Bell was, Why are you so sedate? People say you’re boring. Unfortunately, it’s true, Bell speaks in a deep monotone with a nasal inflection, and it is soporific. He had some spark on the term limits question, but for the most part he comes across as pedantic. He did make a point in the post-session media availability of introducing Houston trial lawyer John O’Quinn, who has become a financial backer of Bell. A statewide media buy costs $1.3 million a week, and there are less than five weeks to go. O’Quinn wouldn’t miss $6.5 million, but whether he is prepared to produce it is another question.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn needed a good performance, but she didn’t deliver one. True confession: I have seen a lot of these debates, either as a viewer or as a panelist, and I have developed some ideas about what a candidate should do and shouldn’t do, and I tend to judge performances against my own preconceptions. That said, I thought Strayhorn missed opportunity after opportunity. The format called for each candidate to ask a question of one other candidate, and Strayhorn was fortunate enough to draw Perry as her victim. She has been stalking him for three years, and now she had him in her sights, and what did she ask him? Why, after six years of his governorship, did Texas still not have a Jessica’s Law on sexual predators? It seemed to me and my preconceptions that this was a transparent and contrived effort to capitalize on the Mark Foley situation. I’m sure that many viewers favor strong child predator laws, as do I, but why blame Perry for this? He is identified with all sorts of controversial policies that she could have asked about, but she chose an issue that hasn’t been on the radar screen until the last week. Then she repeated her campaign themes with a relentlessness that became grating. A governor for all Texans…Texas first, not special interests first…I always challenge the status quo. So contrived.

Kinky Friedman looked lost. He made erroneous assertions that finally drove panelist Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News to tick them off, one by one, and conclude by saying, “None of them are true.” He was on the defensive about his old racial jokes, and the best he could say was, “You can’t be afraid of offending people.” Like Strayhorn, he repeated his mantra–I am not a politician–ad nausem. Later, in his remarks to the media, his witty persona was back. “Right now, I’m still voting for myself,” he began. Asked why he changed his mind about building a wall on the border, he said, “Jesse Ventura convinced me I shouldn’t be for a wall because ten years from now we might want to be getting out of here.”

Perry held serve, which is all he needed to do. Bell gave good answers and handled himself well. Strayhorn didn’t deliver in the clutch. Kinky clutched. And the earth did not stray from its orbit.