In what I saw as the Rick Santorum-Newt Gingrich primary to challenge Cain as the non-RomneyPerry candidate, I thought Santorum won soundly. I conclude that because Newt was at his most outrageous and undisciplined, notably when he said: “If you want to put people in jail, I want to second what Michele [Bachmann] said, you ought to start with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd.” Ah, yes, let’s focus on jailing those we disagree with. This is America?

Santorum, in the meantime, scored by reminding New Hampshire residents who pay neither sales nor income taxes that Cain’s plan would impose a whopping nine percent sales tax. He also got at Cain and the frontrunners for supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program. (I think Santorum is wrong about the issue, but most Republican primary voters agree with him.) And it did not hurt him among social conservatives that he managed to get in an argument that family breakdown is a major cause of poverty.

Michele Bachmann made a point I have been waiting for someone to make for a long time about satanic numbers. Speaking of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, she said: “When you take the 9-9-9 plan and turn it upside down, the devil is in the details.” It was a funny line that may serve as an opener for many television and radio pieces about the details of Cain’s plan. But (at the risk of overworking religious metaphors) it was not enough to resurrect her poll numbers. I don’t think she did much to stop her slide.

Romney seemed more relaxed and more confident than he’s been in any of these debates. (Chris Christie’s endorsement might do that for a candidate.) I was particularly struck by the extent to which he was willing to defend the Massachusetts health care plan. More than that, he went after Perry from the left in comparing the small number of uninsured children in Massachusetts with the huge number of uninsured kids in Texas. It seemed like Romney was already moving to the center.

But he’ll have two problems with his health care answer: First, many conservatives will notice that Romney stood to Perry’s left on health care and won’t like it. Second, the defense Romney made of his plan — that it actually helped insure those without insurance — is exactly the same defense supporters of President Obama’s plan offer. Yes, Obamneycare works.

Romney did display some of the slipperiness his opponents accuse him of on a question about TARP. He sort of said he supported it, but then listed so many things that were wrong with it that listeners could come away with the impression that he was against it. Not a particularly big deal, but an indicator of a problem I think he’ll have to confront again.

Having said all that, there is no doubt that Romney had an excellent evening. Perry, on the other hand, seemed only to want to talk about his energy plan, but came unprepared to offer any details. That is not a good strategy. He didn’t make any whopping errors that I caught, but he didn’t impress.

So where are we? Romney is more in command now than he was the last time he was the frontrunner, before Rick Perry got in. Cain bought himself more attention and more time in the spotlight. Santorum is creeping up toward contention and may yet get his moment if Perry doesn’t manage to regain his role as the dominant conservative, and if Cain’s 9-9-9 plan gets deep sixed by voters after they look at it some more.

One caveat: Maybe the Republican faithful will love Gingrich for wanting to jail Dodd and Frank and for how free he is with sweeping assaults. (I notice that Chris Cillizza ranked Newt among his winners, along with Romney and Cain.) I still think Gingrich would have been better off with his substantive side.

And let’s have far more of candidates asking each other questions, and give them even more time to go back and forth afterward. After all, they’re the ones who are running, not the journalists. But it should be said that both Karen Tumulty of the Post and Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg, who joined Charlie Rose on the reporters’ panel, asked thoughtful and substantive questions that were well above the normal run of such queries in these encounters.

More on the debate from PostOpinions

Rubin: Romney laps the field

Cohen: Will Romney remain the top dog?

Petri: Just nominate Mitt Romney, already

Bernstein: Perry is in­cred­ibly bad at debates

Stromberg: GOP candidates spinning on ideology