And when Perry’s moment came, he blew it. More than that, he created doubt in the minds of viewers (including the important ones, Republican primary voters, and not just people like me) as to how he would fare against a rather good debater named Barack Obama.

Here is Perry’s fumbling effort to make a charge against Romney that ought to have been easy to make crisply. (This clearly struck my colleagues Dan Balz and Perry Bacon as much as it struck me because they reproduced it in full in their debate story in the print edition of The Post and noted that “Perry had some difficulty delivering his lines.”) Here is what Perry said, according to Fox News’ transcript:

I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it — was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he’s for Obamacare, and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and – and — and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.

C’mon, Rick, this was supposed to be your money line of the night. Is that the best you can do?

Once again, Romney came off as polished and ready. I’d say he was the clear winner again except for a couple of things. Perry actually did catch him out on President Obama’s Race-to-The-Top education program. (Trip Gabriel does a nice job parsing Romney’s inconsistency in the New York Times.) And while it is not my habit to agree with Mark Thiessen, one of The Post’s conservative bloggers, he is absolutely right that Romney should never have said “There are a lot of reasons not to elect me.” It will, indeed, be the line that launches a thousand attack ads.

In the Perry-Romney contest, I’d say on balance that Romney came out on top again. But when two frontrunners go after each other with the relentlessness that Perry and Romney are bringing on, it gets tiresome and it opens room for a third contender. The problem is that it’s not clear -- to me at least -- that any of these other candidates can rise to that level. Maybe Jon Huntsman can do it in New Hampshire. Maybe Michelle Bachmann can do it in Iowa, though I have my doubts. But on a day when the economic news must have dispirited President Obama’s loyalists, the slugfest between the two G.O.P. front-runners must have brought smiles to their weary faces and a ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy day.