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Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif.

The nation got its first look at Texas Gov. Rick Perry last night during the Republican national debate and not everyone was impressed with the GOP frontrunner. In fact, the political punditry thought former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came out of the debate on top.

How much that might help Romney remains to be seen.

"Perry was hardly the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan," wrote The Washington Post's Michael Gerson "(He) often seemed awkward, nervous and programmed. On several questions, he left an impression of policy shallowness. He showed hints of brittleness, snapping that Karl Rove is 'over the top.'"

Romney on the other hand was "the most presidential," and the "natural and authentic candidate," wrote Gerson. "(Romney) seemed more electable than anyone else on the stage. In the first Perry-Romney faceoff, Romney won."

The Post's Jonathan Bernstein was a bit more measured, "My sense, and my sense of what my Twitter feed was telling me, was that Perry had a lousy night, while Romney — as he has in each of these things — just outclassed the field."

The former governor of Massachusetts even received praise from a colunnist in Iowa — a primary state most commentators have already given to Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann.

"Mitt Romney let some of the air out of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's fast-rising balloon during Wednesday night's Republican presidential candidate debate," wrote Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register.

"Romney, a debate veteran, was serene, while Perry seemed nervous. Romney stayed on message — a strong focus on creating jobs and improving the economy — while Perry strayed into swampy side issues."

Obradovich pointed to an early exchange between the two candidates to make her case, as Perry tried to contrast the high job creation rate in Texas with lower job creation in Massachusetts while Romney was governor.

"The states are different. Texas is a great state," Romney fired back. "Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right-to-work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things. But Gov. Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, why, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."

After laughter and applause, an MSNBC's headline colorfully captured what came next, describing Romney and Perry locking horns:

"'Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,' Perry jabbed in the debate's opening moments, referring to one of Romney's Democratic predecessors as governor of Massachusetts.

"'As a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did," Romney shot back at Perry, the 10-year incumbent Texas governor."

That lively exchange was part of what thrilled David Chalian and Terence Burlij at the PBS NewsHour blog The Rundown.

"It is far more often the case than not that hyped political events don't live up to expectations," the pair wrote to open their coverage, "but Wednesday night's GOP debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was the exception that proves the rule."

Chalian and Burlij gave Perry some good marks, but were left with one big question mark.

"Perry had a very simple mission," they wrote. "He needed to prove that he can withstand the scrutiny and the attacks, that he is tough enough to give as good as he gets, and that he is a viable general election candidate who can appeal to a broad swath of Americans and defeat President Obama in 2012.

"On the first two fronts, Perry clearly passed the test. He didn't buckle and seemed to relish the engagement with his opponents, specifically former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"It was the third component of his mission where he may have run into some trouble and where Romney's campaign hopes to create an opening."

Glen Johnson had far stronger words for Perry at the Boston Globe's Political Intelligence blog. After leading off by saying Romney's seven years of campaign experience and the $47 million he personally has spent on those races are paying off, Johnson said Romney was the most composed and most focused.

"Romney, mounting his second White House bid, benefited in many ways from having been on such a grand stage before. Perry has two more debates this month to improve his answers, sharpen his attacks, and prove he is worthy of remaining considered the frontrunner, but another tentative performance in the next debate, on Monday night, could bring his campaign crashing back to Earth as fast as it launched into orbit."

The biggest divide between Romney and Perry became apparent: Social Security. Huffington Post writer Jon Ward said the two are now locked in a "cage match" over the issue.

"There was one thing and one thing only on the minds and lips of Mitt Romney's aides and advisers after Wednesday night's Republican presidential primary debate: Texas Gov. Rick Perry's position on Social Security.

"Perry doubled down during the debate on his past statements of Social Security as a "ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." But Romney — the former Massachusetts governor — and his campaign looked past the rhetoric, calling that a distraction from the substance of Perry's position on the issue, which they said amounts to being in favor of ending the program.

"A top Perry aide refused, under repeated questions from The Huffington Post, to rule out the idea that Perry would favor dissolving altogether the 76-year-old program that pays out benefits to seniors."

Romney carved a very different line in the sand: "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security."

Chalian and Burij at PBS NewsHour called that "the most illustrative exchange that will likely help define the Perry/Romney divide going forward... ."

Ron Paul had an exchange with Perry regarding the Perry's early days as a Democrat and support of Hiliary Clinton's healthcare plan, to which Perry replied by inquiring about Paul's lack of support for Ronald Reagan.

Newt Gingrich may have been the most impressive among the rest of the candidates, as his points were articulate and intelligent — drawing considerable applause for, at one point, accusing the moderator of trying to provoke GOP infighting.

"You'd like to puff this up into some giant thing!" Gingrich said testily after Politico's John Harris asked a question regarding the difference between individual mandates in Obamacare and Romneycare.

Despite strong showings from many of the candidates on stage, it was clear that, in the words of Obradovich "none of them wrested the spotlight from Romney and Perry for long."

And though most agreed that Romney's showing was stronger, "the Texas governor got the most questions from questioners Brian Williams and John Harris, but he also absorbed the most punches from his competitors," according to Politico's Maggie Haberman. "When all the energy is concentrated in one direction, it underscores who is dominating the field — and last night it was Perry who was at the center of attention."

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