The GOP debate last night was the best so far: the candidates are getting feisty because there are now two top ones and the others know that a winnowing must begin and because tea party members supplied excellent questions.

Jonathan Tobin on the Commentary blog referred to Rick Perry’s “faltering” debate style, and that is fair. Perry is not fluid, but I am not sure his Texas, aggie swagger won’t appeal to outside the Beltway voters after four years of Ivy League arrogance.  

The first question was on Social Security, an issue that has had Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at each other’s throats. Romney has tried to portray Perry as somebody who would kill Social Security. He said last night that Perry “scares seniors.” Romney said that Perry has called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and unconstitutional. I thought Perry was pretty good in his reply: he handled the issue by referring somewhat obliquely to what he regards as incorrect decisions in the 1930s and 1940s-when the New Deal was born and grew-but making it clear that, after all those years, Social Security should be reformed rather than abolished. I get the feeling that Perry might try to give states more of a role in administering Social Security.

Perry recalled that Romney had once written that Social Security is “criminal” and Romney replied by saying that what was criminal was the failure to put money in the Social Security trust fund. This was the best back and forth of the evening and even though neither candidate told us how he would fix Social Security, both made it clear that, unlike Democrats, they know action is urgent and that they also know that people at or near retirement age have counted on Social Security.

Perry is generally considered more conservative than Romney, but on two issues last night he came across as the liberal on the stage: he supports in-house tuition credits for illegals who came here as children and are working towards citizenship (he regards this as a decision for the states but this stand could help him with Hispanic voters) and he still doesn’t understand why conservatives are mad about his executive order than teen-aged girls had to be vaccinated against a sexually-transmitted form of cancer. He says he made a mistake-right for conservatives-but then goes on to say that he should have taken the matter before the legislature-wrong answer for social conservatives.

This issue led Michele Bachmann, who desperately needed a knockout punch, to utter perhaps the silliest line of the evening: “”I’m offended for all little girls.”

Who won? An item on Commentary picks the winner correctly: the tea party. They didn’t look crazy and that they could team with CNN, a liberal network, to produce a fine evening of talk and spirit, showed who they really are.