Don’t laugh too hard at Rick Perry for his mortifying episode of brain-lock at Wednesday’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate. His opponents managed to remember their lines, but didn’t do any better at making sense.

OK, I understand, the Perry Meltdown is hard to resist. There are three reasons why the Texas governor needs to pack it up and head back to Austin: He’s embarrassing himself; his plunging poll numbers give him little chance of winning the nomination; and, um, let’s see, the third reason, wait a minute, it’ll come to me. …

As everyone knows by now, there was a point in the debate when Perry tried to list the three federal agencies he would eliminate if he became president. He named the Commerce Department and the Education Department — then blanked on the third. He racked his brain for 43 mortifying seconds — an eternity when you’re in front of a television camera — before finally giving up.

About 15 minutes later, at his next opportunity to speak, Perry doubled back and identified the elusive agency: the Department of Energy. But the damage had been done. “I’m glad I had my boots on, because I really stepped in it tonight,” Perry told reporters later.

His performance in previous debates had been weak enough to prompt questions about his intellectual depth, not to mention his command of basic grammar. Anyone can have a momentary mental lapse, but Perry chose the worst possible moment for his. It’s one thing to fumble a list of 10 or 15 items. But three? As a fellow Texan, Don Meredith, used to croon when Monday Night Football games got out of reach, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over … .”

If Perry goes, I won’t pretend to be sad, since I think he would be a terrible president. But did you hear the nonsense that his competitors were trying to sell? Perry might have been inarticulate Wednesday night, but the others were incoherent — or worse.

Mitt Romney was generally considered the debate’s winner, but mostly by default. Romney has mastered the art of surviving these multi-candidate encounters: Speak fluidly and with conviction, secure in the knowledge that with so many others on the stage and so little time for each question, there’s hardly any danger of being caught in any but the most obvious contradictions, flip-flops and non sequiturs.

There were so many from Romney that it’s hard to pick a favorite. But I’m going with his peroration — delivered with a straight face — on health care.

“What’s wrong with our health care system in America is that government is playing too heavy a role,” said the former Massachusetts governor who designed and implemented a health-insurance mandate that became the model for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. When one of the moderators, CNBC’s John Harwood, tried to call him on it, Romney changed the subject to Medicaid and ended by declaring, “Obamacare is wrong. I’ll repeal it. I’ll get it done.”

Romney also noted that 18 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product is spent on health care, while no other nation spends more than 12 percent. He said this illustrates why we need to reduce government’s role and “get the market to work.” No one had the chance to point out that other industrialized countries have single-payer health systems that require much more government involvement than we have in the United States, not less.

Newt Gingrich spent the evening acting grouchily superior and reminding us that he once was a professor of history. Asked what he did to earn the $300,000 he was paid by quasi-public mortgage giant Freddie Mac during the subprime housing bubble, Gingrich claimed he had just offered advice “as a historian.”

Gingrich’s Ph.D. thesis at Tulane University was titled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.” Who knew the job market for historians of colonial Africa was so hot?

Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul were merely present and accounted for.

Oh, and Herman Cain. In many ways, his gaffe was worse than Perry’s: He referred to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy.” Cain has spent the past week trying to convince the nation he’s not guilty of chronically piggish behavior toward women. Belittling the first woman to become speaker of the House with a flip, sexist insult was telling — and appalling.

Once again, a GOP debate produced a clear winner. Once again, it was President Obama.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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