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Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor and one-time frontrunner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, stood out at a candidate debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California Wednesday night by displaying a solid command of the issues and appearing less abrasive and extreme than his fellow candidates — and specifically by defending Social Security as a politically popular and fundamentally beneficial program.

We’ve known for some time now that Romney fares best in general election match-ups with Barack Obama, especially when compared to Tea Party favorites Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.

But that Romney would dare to defend the bedrock of the modern welfare state and liberalism in front of a conservative audience in 2011 is surprising — and that the audience appreciated it suggests there is a constituency for the “electability” argument in the modern Republican Party.

Less shocking but nonetheless noteworthy should he garner his party’s nod was Perry’s insistence on slamming Social Security repeatedly as a “ponzi scheme” and a “failure” whose guarantee of benefits is a “monstrous lie,” FDR and 75 years of popularity notwithstanding.

The Republican Party seems poised for a fundamental ideological battle between Tea Party fanaticism and conservative reform. This isn’t the first time, and surely won’t be the last. But whereas Perry’s pitch seems intended for the Tea Party base in Iowa and South Carolina, Romney’s may be better-tuned to Republicans in Florida, a key early primary state with an abundance of delegates up for grabs where seniors who appreciate Social Security play a bigger role in politics than almost anywhere else.

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