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Mike Carlson, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry gesture during a Republican debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla.

For the second GOP debate in a row, the most interesting bits of Monday night's showdown came when the two leaders in the race for the Republican nomination went head to head.

And once again, the political pundits are saying former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney bested Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"Four debates. Four times Romney has wound up in the winner's circle," Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza wrote. "It's not a coincidence. Romney proved yet again that he is the best debater in this field with another solid performance in which he effectively downplayed his liabilities on health care and accentuated his strengths on jobs and the economy. Romney played more offense than he has in previous debates… ."

The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier added that "... for the second time in a week, Mitt Romney may have turned in the best overall debate performance. He was prepared and crisp in his answers, and he differed with Rick Perry and others without seeming angry."

Perry and Romney went "toe-to-toe over the issue (of Social Security) — and, for the second straight week, turned a GOP presidential debate into a two-man show," wrote The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz. "… Romney seized control of the tempo in what may have been his strongest performance so far. He seemed at ease taking the fight to Perry and got the better of their heated exchanges. The former Massachusetts governor was clearly trying to position himself as the reassuring grownup on stage and Perry as the fearmonger."

That Social Security debate, among other things, has the GOP elite looking toward Romney, the New York Times reported Monday. Times reporters Jeff Zeleny and Michael D. Shear wrote that Tim Pawlentys endorsement of Romney signals the beginning of an effort by some party leaders to try to slow the ascent of Mr. Perry — or to push him to explain positions that are considered provocative. ... The endorsement was a visible marker in a quietly continuing battle for the soul and direction of the Republican Party between traditional party leaders and grass-roots conservatives. To some degree it is a clash of styles and of principle versus pragmatism, but it also encompasses foreign and domestic policy differences, some of which have surfaced as the presidential campaign has intensified.

That clash played out in the debate, and like Cillizza, Grier and Kurtz, the Washington Posts Right Turn blogger Jennifer Rubin crowned Romney the better debater of the night.

"Throughout the evening, Romney proved the better debater (projecting command of his facts and a forceful tone) and the better prepared of the two front runners," she wrote. "He gave solid answers on jobs and on his desire to reform entitlements. He rattled off a series of steps (albeit generic ones) for balancing the budget. On RomneyCare, he's perfected the delivery of his defense (e.g. he didn't raise taxes, he'll repeal ObamaCare), but he likely isn't convincing anyone in the GOP base. He scored a foreign policy point by promising to return the Winston Churchill bust that President Obama removed. Perry was at his best reciting his states' jobs record, although Newt Gingrich deflated his bubble a bit by pointing out that government doesn't create jobs."

With Romney doing well on the offensive but trailing in the polls behind Perry, it may be time for Romney to challenge Rick Perry to a one-on-one debate.

Blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote it would be a smart move for Romney.

"It was interesting when Rick Perry and Mitt Romney went head-to-head," he wrote. "There appear to be some real policy disagreements between the two of them, and it would be good to see them hashed out thoroughly … I think it would be smart for Romney to challenge Perry to a mano-a-mano debate."

In a piece for the Alantic Wire, National Journal political writers Beth Reinhard and Alex Roarty noted that Rick Perry's candidacy has made Romney a sharper candidate and more prepared for a general election.

"Rick Perry has cost Mitt Romney his lead in the polls but made him a better candidate and potentially, a more formidable nominee," read the Alantic's piece. "The former Massachusetts governor, long disparaged as a fragile frontrunner for the nomination, is showing a spark that seemed elusive when he topped the national polls. He delivered his second confident debate performance against Perry on Monday, raising more questions about the Texas governor's position on Social Security even as Perry tried to close out the discussion by vowing the benefits were 'slam-dunk guaranteed' for current recipients."

Meanwhile, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman made headlines after questioning both Perry and Romney's back and forth over Social Security. In pressing his fellow governors, he even made a pop culture reference in an effort to poke fun at Mitt Romney's book "No Apology."

"I don't think anything should be off the table except maybe some of the drama that's been on this floor today," Huntsman said. "I don't know if that (Romney's book) was written by Kurt Cobain or not."

"The former governor of Utah was alluding to Romney's book, 'No Apology,' which sounds only slightly similar to Nirvana's 1993 song 'All Apologies,'" wrote Laura Donovan from The Daily Caller. "The single was written by the band's frontman Kurt Cobain, who took his own life a year later."

While not fielding as many questions as Perry and Romney, Huntsman showed some stage presence and spoke forcefully at times," according to Politico's Maggie Haberman. Yet, she also said that he "gave a disjointed answer to an audience questioner who asked about women in Afghanistan."