If, as the consensus seems to be, Perry only managed to whelm us at the last debate, this time he distinctly underwhelmed.

Santorum and Bachmann seized him by the ankles of his hand-tooled cowboy boots and refused to let go.

I would actually argue that Rick Santorum is beginning to find his crowd. Like his podium, he often finds himself to every viewer’s right, and he used this to great effect in the HPVaccine Pile-On of 2011.

That guy who vaccinated all those people. (SCOTT AUDETTE/REUTERS)

“If you’re dealt four aces that doesn’t make it necessarily a great poker player,” Mitt Romney said of Rick Perry at one point, explaining Texas’s rate of job creation. There was audible mirth. At any rate I chuckled. Then he started talking about payphones again and the crowd wandered off.

Huntsman said Rick Perry was treasonous for saying the border could not be secured, but then he grinned apologetically and everyone decided to let it be. There were bigger fish to fry. In fact, Rick Perry was on special.

If there is one lesson from this debate, it is that the Tea Party does not like it if you mandate the HPV vaccine Gardisil for 12 year-old girls, no matter how little money Merck donated to your campaign.

Much as his audience may dislike cancer, they hate vaccinating 12 year-old girls more, no matter how many opt-out provisions you include, or how sorry you say you are afterwards.

What Rick Perry seemed to be counting on was that if he said he was pro-life often enough they would become confused and complacent. This worked less well than might have been hoped.

But that was hardly an innocuous inoculation.

If only he’d inoculated himself against criticism. But instead he inoculated 12 year-old girls against HPV. Nothing says, “I have not clearly thought through the ramifications of this” like offering abstinence-only sex education and HPV vaccines concomitantly.

And when Bachmann announced that this was only because his former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for the company that stood to profit by the vaccines, and they had given Perry thousands of dollars, Perry made what will probably become the infamous rejoinder:

“If you think I can be bought for 5000 dollars, I’m offended.”

Well, as George Bernard Shaw apocryphally said, “We have established what you are. Now we are just haggling on price.”

Really, that’s the defense you choose? “In Texas, we are only purchasable for big amounts of money. $5000? For $5000, I wouldn’t even wink sensually in his general direction, and I did that for free at Mitt Romney all evening without even realizing what I was doing.”

Mitt Romney wisely stayed aloof from all this. (“In Massachusetts, everyone is urged to have as much sex as possible, but somehow it never quite takes, whereas in Texas the converse seems to be true,” he could have said, but that probably wouldn’t have played in this crowd.)

If anything, this was Rick Santorum’s crowd. He castigated Ron Paul for blaming the USA for 9/11 on his blog, and Ron Paul defended the blog post and got booed. He castigated Rick Perry for vaccinating Texan twelve year-olds against HPV, and everyone burst out into wild applause. Say what you will about Santorum, he had his finger on the pulse of the crowd.

Bachmann needed to do well, and if it plays as well at home as it played with the crowd (always a dubious proposition) she did well. But Perry and Romney were still the lions, front and center. Santorum and Bachmann did a credible impression of hyenas, turning on Perry when he started limping, assuming that I have my natural kingdom correct and hyenas turn on lions. (I didn’t see Lion King 3D, so I could be wrong.)

Nobody attacked Romney with anything new, and he skated through as usual. Nobody attacked Perry with anything new, but somehow he managed to do worse.

But the Tea Party debate wasn’t about the debaters. It was about the audience.

They cheered. They booed. They even booed Ron Paul. No one boos Ron Paul. He reminds us too much of our collective uncle.

At one point when Wolf Blitzer asked if you should let a 30 year-old die for want of 6 months of care, someone yelled, “Yeah!”

If you listened to the sounds of the crowd, you could see how difficult it is to be a politician in this climate. The Tea Party would cheer and boo in sometimes contradictory fashion. Get out of our foreign wars! Yeah! Protect Afghani women and children! Yeah! Have cake! Yeah! Eat it! Yeah!

But vaccines? Boooo!