Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was billed as a sparring match between former frontrunner Mitt Romney and the new leader of the GOP pack, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — and it "largely lived up to expectations," says Michael O'Brien at The Hill. Perry's first national debate was "occasionally combative" — in the opening minutes, Romney and Perry traded rhetorical blows over their respective records on jobs — but also the "most entertaining" forum yet in the GOP race for the party's 2012 nomination. Here, a look at which candidates leaped forward, and which fell flat:


Mitt Romney
"I may have misunderestimated Mitt Romney," says Paul Begala at The Daily Beast. "Confident and smooth," he ran circles around Perry, and turned in his best debate performance of the year. Yes, "in the first Perry-Romney faceoff, Romney won," says Michael Gerson at The Washington Post. He was "easily the most presidential of the lot," and surprisingly, he came off as "the more natural and authentic candidate" of the two frontrunners.

Jon Huntsman
Where has this Huntsman been? asks Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. On Wednesday, he had "a much much better debate than last time around," emerging as "an actual candidate" instead of just a media crush. Huntsman won the debate "in tems of polish, substance, and clarity," and he really "walks the walk on evolution and climate science — in terms of electability." True, "Huntsman distinguished himself and showed he deserves to be considered a top-tier candidate," says The Economist, but it may be too late to rescue his flailing candidacy.

Rick Perry
The Texas governor's "very successful debate debut... confirms his position as the leader of the field," says Stanley Kurtz at National Review. He and Romney "were well matched" in their inaugural duel, but "Perry's appeal to the base means he's got a leg up," and his continued attacks on Social Security as a "monstrous lie" and Ponzi scheme "just might win him the nomination." Perry's team "should be exchanging high fives," says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. With plenty of punches thrown and no major gaffes, Perry started the debate as the "surging frontrunner, and nothing happened at the Reagan Library to slow him down."


Rick Perry
"If the debate ended after 45 minutes, we might be talking about how Perry had dispelled all doubts about his readiness for the national glare of a presidential race," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. But as the evening wore on, he lost focus, badly fumbled a few questions, and failed to seal the deal. Yes, I was shocked by how "unprofessional Perry's debate performance was," says David Frum at FrumForum. He was unprepared, "nervous, irritable, stuttering, floundering," and his Social Security smear "delivered President Obama the perfect clip for a 2012 negative ad."

Michele Bachmann
Bachmann was "the best performer in the last two debates," but she "really faded in this one," says The Daily Beast's Kurtz. Moderators are partly to blame for focusing so much on Romney and Perry, but Bachmann also just "seemed less aggressive." If Romney looked liked he's already wrapped up the GOP nomination, and Perry looked ready to steal it, says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post, "Bachmann looked like she was beginning to realize she definitely wouldn't win the Republican nomination."

President Obama
Things are looking up for the Republican Party, says The Economist, and that's bad news for the president. "Three months ago people were saying [the GOP] didn't have any candidate who could beat Obama." After this debate, "it's clear that there are three" — Huntsman, Perry and Romney — "who would have a reasonable chance in the general" election. It was "a successful debate for all the candidates, and for the party," says National Review's Kurtz. The GOP field is set, it's "maturing, and Obama is vulnerable."