With the Air Force One of Damocles looming overhead, eight intrepid candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination held forth on Wednesday for nearly two hours at red podiums on a red stage in front of an American flag, in what I assume was the First Annual Ronald Reagan Channeling Competition — or GOP debate, if you like. It seemed less like a debate than like the kind of séance you would hold if you wished to summon Reagan’s spirit. Nancy was even in attendance, looking on in sharp black-framed glasses.

And the spirit showed up in spades! At one point I worried we would have to exorcise Ron Paul.

Ronald Reagan drifted from speaker to speaker, murmuring in tongues. He hovered first over Gingrich, then making himself known by a series of mysterious rumblings. Rick Perry dared to suggest that Ron Paul had denied Reagan at least once, if not three times, citing a late 80’s letter from Paul (yes, I realize I’m mixing Biblical metaphors) to the Colossal. But Paul turned this question back on him, explaining that he had only opposed Reagan because he was more full of the Spirit of the Gipper than Reagan himself.

Shortly after this mind-shattering revelation we were forced to watch a lovely early posthumous tribute to Nancy Reagan, just to remind us not to get too carried away.

Then the channeling took a brief hiatus, only to begin again when Jon Huntsman (my nominee for Best Supporting Actor for the debate, in his role as That One Candidate Who Likes Science) announced that “if Reagan were here he would speak to the American people and he would lay out in hopeful, optimistic terms that we are dealing with people” on the subject of immigration.

Then it started right back up. Bachmann raised her hand again to note that they were missing one vote on the No Raising Taxes, Not Even With Ten To One Cuts Pointless Debate Pledge. Whose vote? “Ronald Reagan.” Then Santorum jumped back in, declaring that if Reagan had been told he could only intervene in Libya with the blessing of the U.N., he would have “melted like the old Wicked Witch of the West.”

At this point, Reagan evanesced from the discussion, muttering, “That’s a bit much even by my standards,” although if you sort of squinted with your ears you could hear him saying, “Waaaaait for Christie.”

Other ghosts were present as well. Mitt Romney came dressed as the ghost of John F. Kennedy’s tan, sporting the ghost of Richard Nixon’s sweat and the ghost of Richard Nixon’s hair. Rick Perry came as the ghost of George W. Bush, but with less of a simian squint and better hair.

I actually thought the nervous, feisty Romney was somewhat endearing, but that could just be because he reminds me of my uncle. I think he has that effect on most people. Huntsman seemed to think that he was the third person in the debate, and by the time it was over, maybe he will be. I hesitate to say this because it was what I said about Pawlenty last time, and then he dropped out of the race. Bachmann had been All Over America Seizing People Firmly By The Hand And Speaking Compassionately Unto Them (she’d even visited the Bay of Pigs Museum!), but I am not sure that it did her any good. The more time a candidate seems to have to get to know Real People, the more he or she tends to be struggling in the polls. Just look at Rick Santorum, who recently showed up on my doorstep bearing flowers. I think he mistook me for the state of Iowa.

Ron Paul said what everyone was thinking, except for a few times when he only said what Ron Paul was thinking.

Oddly, the two candidates invoking Ronald Reagan the least were the two candidates everyone was there to see.

Romney and Perry initially obliged with a spirited rendition of the dogfight everyone was expecting. Conveniently situated in the middle of the podia — debates going by the inverse family picture rule, where the rule of family pictures is that the two in the middle will be the soonest to depart this realm — they sparred about Texas and Massachusetts, flinging statistics at each other with wild abandon.

But then Gingrich intervened. It is clear that Gingrich views running for the presidency more as an avocation that allows him to speak to large crowds than as a serious pursuit, and I, for one, enjoy having him. He’s like the cool uncle who goes along to chaperone. He out-moderates the moderators. At one point he rebuked them for pitting the Republicans against each other — they were not here to disagree with each other, he pointed out, but to disagree with Obama! — and Perry could be heard murmuring, “Amen.” After that, things settled down somewhat.

Sure, Perry managed to suggest in the course of just 110 minutes that Barack Obama is an “abject liar,” affirm that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and invoke Galileo in opposing the science on climate change.

(“Ah, but Galileo also changed his answer from the scientific truth to the one his establishment favored, for survival reasons,” you could point out, if you were being charitable. If you weren’t, you might have just thrown something at your set.)

But it was Perry’s crowd to lose. At one point Brian Williams alluded to the fact that the State of Texas commits scores of executions and the entire audience emitted an almost Coliseum-ready burst of applause. A crowd that will applaud anything. And, in fact, they did.

All told, Perry only said two or three inane things, so probably the headlines tomorrow will say things like, “Perry Does Really Well By Texas Standards.”

I’m sorry, Reagan would not have said that.