I underestimated Rick Perry. I had no idea what relish he brings to politics, on the trail and — we learned last night — on the debate stage. He was loose, confident, likable — and blunt as hell. He had his weak moments (the tautological “adventurism” answer, the stumbling around on global warming), but he’ll presumably improve as he gets these questions over and over. He was much better than George W. Bush in the Republican debates in 1999. His “My God, he’s going to run as Rick Perry” moment came on Social Security. I read his answer, though, as a softening of his position even as he doubled down on his rhetoric. As long as he comes up with a serious, credible plan to put Social Security on a better footing, he can survive the opportunities for Democratic demagoguery he’s created with his hot words. I thought Romney did very well, too. Technically, he’s almost flawless during these debates. He’s smooth, well-informed, and never makes a false step. I thought Yuval was too sunny on Perry and Romney in this post a couple of weeks ago, but now I think he’s right. Both of these guys are impressive in their own ways. Rhetorically, culturally, and substantively closer to the heart of the party, Perry has a built-in advantage. In coming months, the press, rival candidates, and elements of the GOP establishment will rain hell down on him, and we’ll see how he withstands it. But he’s off to a very strong start.