Ensembles speak louder than words. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Mark Wilson)

Word clouds were the theme of this evening. The moderators kept showing graphic clouds of the words that most frequently surfaced in the course of questions. Rick Perry, clearly thinking this was the evening’s theme, kept responding only in muddled clouds of words.

He explained his defense of Medicaid in such ringing phrases as that we need to “give them more options to be able to give the options... it’s a menu of options that we can have… not one size fits all… People continue to move to the state of Texas…We have created a state where opportunity is very much the word of the day.”

His shining moment, when called upon to attack Mitt Romney for flip-flopping, was one of the most meandering and addled statements I’ve heard since listening to the guy who didn’t do the reading try to explain The Sound and the Fury during literature class. It was intended to convey that Mitt Romney couldn’t keep straight what he was for and against. It suggested that Rick Perry couldn’t keep straight what issues Mitt Romney had even weighed in on. “Before he was against versus Roe versus Wade?” Eh? Did he just have back surgery? Moments before the debate, did someone hit him with a tranquilizer, leaving him to flail and mumble at critical moments?

Romney kept telling Perry “Nice Try” after his attacks as though he meant it to sting. It stung. “Come on, Tim Pawlenty attacked me more effectively than this, and he just endorsed me,” Romney seemed to say.“This is like being savaged by a damp towelette! I’ve eaten pates that disagreed with me more.” At one point Romney attacked himself, just to show Perry how it was done. “There are a lot of reasons not to vote for me,” he said. (That’ll show up in every campaign ad on the face of the planet.) But you didn’t manage to name any of them! You just stood there and mumbled and failed to make eye contact!

Romney and Perry had a fun round of “badminton,” as Perry called it, but the most effective attacks on Perry tended to come from Santorum, who was able to frame things louder than Bachmann but brought less baggage than Romney, largely because nobody knows who he is and everyone who Googled “Santorum” is off boiling his memory.

And Perry even missed the Daily Double! The phrase of the debate came late, from surprise bonus contestant Gary Johnson, and it was: “My next-door neighbors’ two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this president.” (At the time of writing, the dogs had been offered jobs as Larry Summers’ replacement’s replacement.)

All the best moments of the debate came at the end – Gary Johnson’s neighbor’s dogs, and the moment when Rick Perry said that his ideal running mate would be “I don’t know how you would do this” but if you could take Herman Cain “and mate him up with Newt Gingrich.” (This might be frowned on in Texas, for a number of reasons.)

It was Perry’s debt to lose, but while he didn’t lose, he certainly didn’t win. Someone leaving the debate might be forgiven for thinking Mitt Romney was the frontrunner again, were there not “a lot of reasons not to vote for me.”

Word clouds. Dog piles. Put those two together, and you had Thursday’s debate in a nutshell. Seemed shovel-ready to me.