Other than the part of the evening where Michele Bachmann compared Herman Cain’s tax plan to the work of Satan, the Washington Post/Bloomberg Republican debate was fairly uneventful.

In fact, it reminded me why I dislike Jane Austen novels. It takes so long to get to what seems a foregone conclusion, and the protagonists always irritatingly fail to understand that the man who is “good” for them is in fact superior to the the temporarily exciting fling who wants them to run off with him in a carriage.

Mitt Romney has stopped running circles around the rest of the field and is now orbiting them several levels up. He seemed mature. He seemed awake. The fact that these characteristics set him apart tells you how bad things have gotten.

Rick Perry seems to be in the wrong weight division. He rambled and babbled and squinted and mumbled himself into corners. Both the Ricks (he and Santorum) seemed to have forgotten to take naps before arriving.

The round-table format didn’t help matters. There’s something soporific about a table. It reminds you of all those group discussions in college, too early in the morning for you to be expected to supply a coherent answer.

Thanks to Cain’s newfound front-runner status, 9-9-9 were the night’s key syllables. No one seemed to know quite how seriously to take Herman Cain. Not even Herman Cain.

A small part of me worries that Cain has trademarked the phrase “9-9-9” and is receiving a small royalty whenever he says it on air. There is no other possible explanation for how often it came up in the course of the debate.

But everyone who noticed early on that 9-9-9 upside down is 6-6-6 can release that collective breath now. Bachmann went there. “When you take the 9-9-9 plan, and turn it upside down, the devil's in the details,” she observed. She was clad in white, perhaps to contrast with the agents of Satan, or perhaps because she feared that someone might be asked to leave the Round Table in search of the Holy Grail — what I can only assume to be a deficit reduction plan that doesn’t raise revenue, creates jobs, and was once touched by the warm hand of Ronald Reagan.

None of the actual plans proposed by the candidates had that Grail-like feeling. Galahad? Bedivere? Not in attendance. The assembly bore more of a resemblance to the characters in Monty Python’s film than to any actual knights in shining armor. There was even one who had been turned into a Newt and not gotten better. He suggested at the first opportunity that Chris Dodd and Barney Frank be jailed — clearly he was under some sort of spell, the kind of spell that traps you in 1998 as everyone else around you moves forward with life.

Ron Paul seems to have resigned himself to the role of Resident Crotchety Grandfather Figure Who Dislikes the Fed, just as Bachmann has embraced Resident Mother of 28 and Perry has embraced his role as the candidate of Was Someone Saying Something? I Had to Stay Up Last Night Doing Pushups and I Missed the Question.

But this race belongs to Romney now.

It wasn’t the Chris Christie endorsement, although it was nice seeing Christie in the audience. It was Romney’s ability to sound awake and alive and unconcerned about Satanic resonances that was so refreshing.

After tonight, Cain may no longer be a front-runner. His clear, catchy answers were one thing when he spoke occasionally, from a corner of the stage. Now, shoved into the middle, they’ve lost some of their charm.

His avowal that Alan Greenspan was a good recent chair of the Fed might be enough to dim his star for now. “Spoken like a true insider,” Paul said, in words that could chill any candidate’s heart. Maybe the flash in the pan has already flashed.

Just nominate Romney already.