ORLANDO -- Thursday night's Republican presidential debate showed once more that there are few better preparations one can make for a White House bid than having run before.
Gov. Mitt Romney's polish stood in contrast to what was near-universally described as an oft-meandering, many times lifeless performance by Gov. Rick Perry. And in the debate's aftermath, even surrogates for the Texas Republican were complimentary of the way that Romney has grown as a candidate.
"I think he is more confident than he was [in the past]. I think he feels his topics better. He has been out there longer," said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback who, just this week, endorsed Perry.
Brownback wasn't exclusively flattering. He raised questions about Romney's ideological sincerity, a common bête noire for conservatives. "You have got this question about where is he really when he gets in the Oval Office," he said.
But among those who can attest to the evolution of Mitt, the Kansas Republican has a unique vantage point, having been on the debate stage with Romney during the last presidential cycle.
"If you have been out there batting the ball for a few years it helps," Brownback acknowledged.
Romney's own advisers also tout the benefits of being in their second rodeo. A candidate with a reputation for delivering stale bromides and awkward jokes has been more comfortable in his skin and sharp in his delivery. Part of that comes from having a narrative focus on a particularly advantageous set of issues -- in this case, jobs over health care. But a lot of it is knowing how to navigate the inherently unnatural process of a presidential campaign.
"The first time around, there area lot of mistakes that you make and you make them again because you didn't realize it was a mistake," said Kevin Madden, an adviser to Romney who served as his chief spokesperson in 2008. "This time around, he's gone through all the paces before, he knows exactly what it is that he wants to argue is the reason he ought to be president, which is to help fix the economy. And a lot of the distractions and a lot of the pressures of just trying to get known are somewhat removed from this campaign."
"He also has a new press secretary this time," he added for good measure.
Meanwhile Perry, who on Friday morning woke up to ruthless reviews of his languid performance, has felt the repercussions of his relative inexperience. The question being asked is twofold: Did he wait too long to get into the race, leaving him frantically searching for a campaign rhythm at a critical juncture. And to what extent are his debate whiffs benefiting Romney?
As one top adviser to a Republican presidential campaign told the Huffington Post: The longer Romney goes without being attacked, the less money he has to spend defending his record, allowing a formidable war chest to grow larger.
"He's got a glass jaw," said the adviser. "But no one has hit it."