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Rick Perry goes in hard at his first presidential debate

"Maybe it's time to have provocative language in this country."

Rick Perry, the Texas governor, made his debut appearance in a presidential debate last night - and he went in hard, defying those who had predicted he would seek a quiet, safe approach.

From the word go, Perry went for Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. The collision between the two dominated the 105-minute debate, appearing to confirm that these two are the frontrunners, as the other six candidates remained on the sidelines.

The strategy seems to have worked, with Perry almost instantly over-taking Romney in the opinion polls. But did he go a step too far with his comments on social security?

His views on the issue have long been seen as potentially damaging in the context of a general election, but Perry refused to back down on the matter, saying:

You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme

Romney pointed out that Karl Rove, Perry's former adviser, said that language would be "toxic" in a general election, to which Perry replied:

You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. So I'm not responsible for Karl anymore.

Romney's campaign has gone hard on the social security question, firing off an email headlined "Perry Does Not Believe Social Security Should Exist," backed up with multiple quotes.

In this debate, Perry proved himself to be a serious and credible candidate, although Romney may still have broader appeal. Over at the Washington Post, Michael Gerson writes that Romney "seemed more electable than anyone else on the stage".

However, there were some alarming reminders of how far the parameters of this contest have shifted to the right. At one point, the moderator, Brian Williams, said to Perry: "Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times." The audience interrupted with a spontaneous burst of applause. Williams continued with: "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Perry's response? "No sir. I've never struggled with that at all."

As American politics becomes more partisan, and rhetoric more heated than ever, the Republican primary is perhaps not the place to look to for restraint. Asked at one point if he wanted to reconsider his language, Perry said:

Maybe it's time to have provocative language in this country.

The Tea Party certainly agrees; it remains to be seen whether the majority of GOP voters do too.