5:08 p.m.: NBC and Politico are setting this up as a Romney vs. Perry debate, with each candidate challenging the other on job creation. But given that they are the first out of the gate, they also spend more time on snappy and rehearsed one-liners than their solutions for job creation nationwide. Perry challenges Romney’s job creation, saying that Michael Dukakis “created three times more jobs than you did.” Romney challenges Perry’s claims of job creation in Texas as akin to “Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.” The latter was a reference to Perry’s past support of Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988.

5:13 p.m. Jon Huntsman, looking every bit the central casting candidate as Romney and Perry, tries to wrestle in on the sparring over who is the better job creator. He really needs to make a mark at this debate (wearing a bright yellow tie probably helps) but curiously it’s Romney who is the brunt of his criticism. Even though Perry leads many polls, Romney has strength in New Hampshire, a state where Huntsman has pinned his hopes.

5:19 p.m.: Newt Gingrich wrote the forward for Rick Perry’s book, “Fed Up,” where he seemed to endorse Perry’s job creation, but Gingrich says it shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement for his presidential prospects. “It means if he wants to write another book, I will write another forward.” Gingrich says that Obama should be at the Reagan Library to listen to the candidates’ solutions to job creation — and tries to characterize him as an uncompromising idealogue willing to wage “class warfare.” Is there anyone on the left who really believes this? They could only wish.

5:29 p.m. Gingrich chides moderator John Harris for trying to create division among candidates, asking each candidate how they view Mitt Romney’s health care plan passed in Massachuetts that includes an indvidual mandate. But Harris defends his line of questioning — which has been asked repeatedly of the candidates so far this campaign. But the whole experience allows Gingrich to serve as a kind of cheerleader, drawing rousing applause when he says they will be united in trying to defeat Obama.

5:36 p.m.: Michele Bachmann has been all but nonexeistent until now, when she talks about her plan for job creation and promise of $2-a-gallon gas. If you don’t believe that Perry’s entrance into the race has hurt her, you may do so tonight, as she is struggling to even get attention. “I can get you a gallon of gasoline for a dime,” says Ron Paul, going on to talk, cantankerously, about a silver currency.

5:41 p.m.: Paul offers what may be the only very. very ever so slight criticism of Ronald Reagan. “Huge deficits in the 1980s,” he says.

5:47 p.m.: Nancy Reagan is present, and is getting strong applause. In one of her last appearances at the library, along with Marco Rubio, she slipped and fell but did not suffer serious injury.

5:49 p.m.: Perry characterizes Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and calls it a “monstrous lie.” Karl Rove said he shouldn’t use such strong language, but Perry says that Rove has been “over the top” for some time. Perry’s comments are undoubtedly fodder for Democrats and Obama, but they also have helped expose fissures has with the Bush crowd.

5:57 p.m.: “I feel like a pinata here,” Perry says, after other candidates attack him for championing a program that required girls to get HPV vaccination. He acknowledges that the process could have been handles better, and says that there was an opt out provision, but “at the end of the day I will always err on the side of saving lives.” Romney gives him a lifeline, calling Perry’s executive order a “Mulligan” and saying, “His heart was in the right place.” By doing so Romney appears a little less brazen and more moderates than some of the other candidates, who have not withheld their attacks on one of Perry’s vulnerabilities.

6:01 p.m.: Ron Paul: “9/11 came about because there was too much government.” His argument is that some of the attacks could have been averted had pilots been able to carry guns. Then he attacks FEMA, saying that the government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to control “the weather.” Paul’s supporters are the most motivated, but comments like these are why the media and many mainstream Republicans don’t treat him as a serious competitor. 

6:07 p.m.: This really is Rick Perry’s debate: Just about every memorable question is framed around his views and whether candidates are for or against it. As for Michele Bachmann, I forgot she was even there.

6:17 p.m.: Remember 2008? Tom Tancredo staked his entire candidacy around a hardline stance on immigration. Today just about the entire GOP field is more nuanced. Jon Huntsman notes that Ronald Reagan passed an amnesty law in 1986 that recognized the “human” problem. After four years and some census proof, candidates spot the demographic realities, as they try ot cast themselevs as hardliners with a heart.

6:25 p.m.: “I would love to get everyone to take a pledge to sign no pledges,” says Jon Huntsman, in response to a question on vows to not raise taxes. Huntsman is trying to separate himself as the moderate in the GOP of field, and while he’s done better in this debate, I am not sure that it is so far enough to make a mark and move the polls in a significant way.

6:30 p.m.: As if struggling to get the words out, Perry actually praises Obama for going after getting bin Laden, before giving more credit to the Navy SEALs and then chiding the president for not creating jobs. He tries to avoid a question about one of his previous comments — warning of “military adventurism” — as it suggests that he’d avoid another Iraq. This is an area where the normally black-white rhetoric of Perry is less than clear.

6:34 p.m.: Bachmann says it was wrong for Obama to go into Libya — and Rick Santorum uses the occasion to accuse his opponents of “isolationist” views. But like others, he criticizes Obama for the Libyan mission, ultimately successful in ousting Gaddafi, even though it is from anotherdirection.

6:37 p.m.: “Who on this stage is anti-science?” Harris asks Huntsman. The candidate tries to brush off the question but eventually answers the question, tying his embrace in a belief in climate change to the type of position that has to be acknowledged if there is any hope of attracting independent voters. Huntsman’s media blitz in recent weeks has helped distinguish himself and has helped get him more airtime at this debate, but questions remain on whether it will draw out the GOP primary voter. Again, the key is going for him to draw independents in New Hampshire. Moreover, Perry responds to the question with more restraint than in his rallies, making him appear more moderate than he really is. After all, he’s arguing that the climate science is not settled, despite overwhelming evidence. If Huntsman’s implication is that some of his opponents are “crazy,” Perry’s demeanor is one of cool and collected.

6:45 p.m.: Strange to hear cheers from the audience at the fact that Texas has executed more convicts than any other states. Perry characterizes his decisions as “thoughtful.” No matter how you feel about the death penalty, this is quite a dicotomy, a dash of softness to a drastic decision.

6:50 p.m.: That is it. Rick Perry benefited, and probably won, for being the “news” of the debate, and he played it well. His biggest liability was that he was prone to gaffes and outrageous comments, and save for Social Security, he avoided those. Remember, he was put on the political map by appealing to the Tea Party, but now that he is leading in the polls he is laying the groundwork to remain on the right but appeal acceptable to the center. He was able to dismiss attacks on his asset, claims of job creation, while brushing off criticism from Karl Rove. Mitt Romney actually helped him by giving him a “mulligan” on one of his biggest vulnerabilities, the use of government to instill a new vacinnation program for HPV. Will that really matter in the long run? More importantly, Perry appeared reasonable, even if there will be plenty of attacks on him in the left and right for being a candidate prone to outlandish comments. And his “ponzi scheme” comments about Social Security may seem bold to soem segments of the GOP, but they will come back to haunt him, probably sooner rather than later.

Romney did well, too, and his debate performances may in the long run help him. But I don’t he’s done much to change perceptions that he’s taken all stances on all issues, and his initial attack on Perry sounded forced and rehearsed much more than Perry’s attack on him.

Huntsman did better than in his past debate, but it’s still a bit difficult to see how he fits into the field. Is he the “sane” alternative or the “moderate” alternative? Still, he was much improved from his debut.

Bachmann was practically non-existent, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC and Politico are criticized by her supporters for not throwing more questions her way. Her lack of airtime only seems to reinforced the notion that she’s struggling, the realities of today’s flash and dash news cycle.