During Rick Perry’s swift political rise, he has gained the support of Tea Party activists and establishment Republicans — both groups united in knowing almost nothing about Perry himself. At Wednesday night’s Republican debate, the learning process began.

Perry met the basic standards of candidate competence. He was generally prepared — usually able to produce information at appropriate moments. He was capable of delivering some tough, pre-written lines. He refused to back down from previous controversies — Social Security still a “Ponzi scheme” — but didn’t seem to add unnecessary new controversies. In tone, Perry avoided being either too passive or offputtingly aggressive. And he could not conceal his disdain for the ravings of Ron Paul, which is a good sign about Perry’s sense of ideological balance.

But Perry was hardly the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. Perry often seemed awkward, nervous and programmed. On several questions, he left an impression of policy shallowness. He showed hints of brittleness, snapping that Karl Rove is “over the top.” The frontrunner has considerable room for improvement.

Easily the most presidential of the lot was Mitt Romney, who has progressed dramatically as a candidate compared to four years ago. Romney was fluent and comfortable on economic issues. He appealed to the Tea Party without obvious pandering. And he produced the evening’s most refreshing grace note by conceding Perry’s good intentions on the HPV vaccine issue.

We learned Wednesday that Perry — while not quite equaling his hype — is a serious candidate. We also learned, perhaps surprisingly, that Romney is the more natural and authentic candidate. He seemed more electable than anyone else on the stage. In the first Perry-Romney faceoff, Romney won.

More from PostOpinions on the GOP debate:

Milbank: Perry comes out fighting

Thiessen: Perry’s narrow win

Rubin: Perry fails to impress in GOP debate

Stromberg: Romney’s victory, play by play

Marcus: Perry doubles down on Social Security

Cohen: Last night’s winners and losers

Bernstein: Does it matter who won?