If a debate more than four months before the first vote is cast can influence the outcome of a presidential nomination race, the debate last night among eight Republicans should aid Mitt Romney’s candidacy. Seldom has there been as clear a winner.

Romney was crisp and succinct, prepared and focused, and aggressive in going after his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Texas governor Rick Perry, when he needed to be. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, showed once again that he’s a far better candidate now than he was four years ago.

He did well in these instances, among others: spelling out the differences between the health care plan he championed in Massachusetts and Obamacare; explaining the problem with the Fair Tax is that it gives short shrift to the middle class; pointing out the built-in advantages Perry has in Texas in governing successfully; and refraining from boasting, except to say that “if America needs a turnaround, that’s what I do.”

Romney challenged Perry on Social Security at the outset of the debate, which was held in Florida and billed as a collaboration of CNN and various Tea Party organizations. It was Tea Party people who asked the questions, mostly better ones than a panel of reporters or pundits would probably have asked.

The first question was on Social Security, which Perry has called a Ponzi scheme and a failure. Romney has suggested Perry’s view makes him unelectable.

When Perry didn’t back down from those comments, Romney jumped in with questions, and host Wolf Blitzer let him proceed. Romney asked Perry about his recent book in which he said Social Security is unconstitutional and might be better run by the states.

Perry didn’t have a ready answer, or at least not a persuasive one. Nor did he offer the one thing that I expected from him in the debate: a Perry plan for fixing Social Security’s looming insolvency. A solid plan would put Perry in good standing on the issue and it’s no secret what the elements would be. In 1997, President Clinton and then-House speaker Newt Gingrich agreed on a plan (increasing retirement age, means testing, etc.) that’s viable today. It died when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in early 1998, presenting Clinton with a bigger problem to deal with.

Perry had many good lines in the debate, but the overriding issue was Social Security. Not resolving that means it will be top concern in the next debate on September 22, sponsored by Fox News.

Here’s how the other six candidates fared:

Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator was excellent on many issues, including Social Security. He effectively zinged Congressman Ron Paul for blaming (on his website) the United States for causing the 9/11 attacks. But Santorum bragged about his political courage (“I’ve got a track record of courage”) rather than leaving that sort of praise to others.

Michele Bachmann. She is extremely well informed and makes her positions crystal clear. She didn’t mince words in denouncing Obamacare. What she hasn’t learned yet is how to appear presidential.

Newt Gingrich. He came across as awfully smart and with a wider grasp of issues than the other candidates (except Romney). Perhaps he’s too smart for his good. His brainpower didn’t enhance his appeal.

Jon Huntsman. The former governor of Utah stressed the significance of his record as governor. What he did there, he can now do for America. Is Utah writ large what Americans are yearning for? I doubt it. He needed to talk more about his impressive tax reform initiative.

Herman Cain. He was fun to listen to. Cain mentioned his 9-9-9 plan several times without explaining why it would revive the country.

Ron Paul. He never changes his libertarian tune. Nor does he soften his opinions. I was hoping he’d be asked whether he would run as a third party candidate for president if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. He wasn’t.

Back to Romney. The candidates were asked what they’d bring to the White House – what thing. Romney gave the best answer after repeating the Winston Churchill quotation that America always does the right thing after trying everything else first. He said he’d bring the bust of Churchill, sent away by President Obama, back to the White House.

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