The Republican presidential candidates gathered on the same stage for the the first time on Wednesday since current frontrunner Rick Perry joined the field.

Perry’s debut was good for MSNBC, which broadcast the debate and earned the highest ratings of any of the four debates thus far (5.4 million viewers), the Los Angeles Times reported. Was Twitter volume higher too?

Topsy measured the candidates’ mentions on Twitter for the four hours before the debate, during it, and for the four hours after (from 4 p.m. EST on Wednesday until 1:45 a.m. EST Thursday) and analyzed what people were saying in 140 characters about the candidates. Here’s a look at what it found.

Perry and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) were by far the most tweeted about. Perry’s 8,857 mentions and Paul’s 6,012 mentions combined rated more mentions than all six other candidates’total mentions.

Mitt Romney was in third place (3,115), followed by Michele Bachmann (3,002) and Jon Huntsman (2,502). Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich each had less than 2,000 Twitter mentions.

The buzz reflects somewhat closely the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll results. Perry led the other contenders in the survey of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, followed by Romney, Sarah Palin (who is not an official candidate), Paul and Bachmann.

But Paul was the big exception. Despite only getting 8 percent of respondents’ support in the poll, the Texas lawmaker had nearly twice as many mentions on Twitter surrounding the debate as any other candidate besides Perry.

We noted in last week’s Mention Machine that Ron Paul’s social presence is bigger than his standing in the polls or the billing he gets in mainstream media outlets. We learned the lesson doubly after the debate, when Post Politics polled our Facebook fans about which candidates won the debate.

Paul supporters turned out on the social Web for their candidate. To our question “Who had the best performance in tonight’s Republican Candidates Debate?,” 2,700 of 2,900 respondents voted for Paul.

A Facebook post about a Post article focused on Perry and Romney - who are the top two GOP primary candidates, according to our polling, and sparred most frequently in the debate - elicited negative passionate responses from Paul fans (many of which contained language to racy to quote here, according to Post editiorial guidelines). The Daily Caller and Politico found similar results to their post-debate Facebook questions.

As strong a showing as Paul had in our Facebook poll, Topsy’s survey revealed a net negative sentiment toward him on Twitter. He made some controversial statements, most notably about the relevance of FEMA, which is likely contrubuted to more negative than positive tweets (36 percent negative versus 22 percent positive).

According to the Topsy data, all the candidates scored net negative sentiment on Twitter, though Santorum’s total negative mentions were the highest at 48 percent. Cain had the lowest net negatives (34 percent).

Follow @MentionMachine to track the conversation around the 2012 presidential candidates and social media’s impact on the election.


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