The Post-Bloomberg debate was the most substantive and well-behaved of the Republican presidential debates to date. Although I was skeptical of a single debate topic (the economy), it did help to focus the contenders and separate the good from the bad from the ugly performances.

Certainly, Mitt Romney has to be very pleased. He was smooth as silk, deflecting a question on RomneyCare, explaining the problems of community banks, and driving home the key message: He is the only candidate ready for prime time. He amped up the populism, continuing on his China currency crusade and tweaking the Texas governor for the huge number of uninsured residents.He also scored a point on national security, telling the audience that defense cuts were a really bad idea. More importantly, he didn’t need to dismantle Herman Cain. That happened at Cain’s own hands with some help from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) He managed to drop New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s name, reminding voters and press alike that this may have been his best day in the race. He even managed to get in a dig at PBS when host Charlie Rose accidentally put Santorum ahead of Romney in the alphabetical line-up for questioning other candidates. His best moment may have been in explaining his Bain experience, creating tens of thousands of net jobs and making Sports Authority, Staples and even a steel mill viable employers. If not an inside the park homerun, it was at least a stand-up triple.

Gov. Rick Perry looked sleepy for much of the debate. He seemed to have one answer for everything: energy. He didn’t have his economic plan ready to go so all he could do was stall. He got skewered by moderator and Post reporter Karen Tumulty on his crony capitalism, saying states should have the right to do these things unlike the feds and pleading that not all the people who got money were donors. There were other disasters as well. At one point he peevishly said, “We don’t need to focus on this policy or that policy. We need to get America working again.” Ooof. At moments it looked like he simply wanted to get out of there. And perhaps after Iowa, he will get his chance to do just that. In short, Perry struck out looking.

Surprisingly, Herman Cain had a bad outing as well. It was so bad, even Ron Paul scored a point by deriding Cain’s praise of former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. Ooof. He seemed under-prepared to answer attacks on his 9-9-9 plan. Santorum smartly used the audience to show a complete lack of support for a sales tax and unanimous disbelief that the rates would stay at 9-9-9. Cain tried to belittle Romney’s 59-point plan; That only gave Romney an opening to tell him “simple” doesn’t mean effective. And Bachmann scored points again telling Cain, “It’s a tax plan. Not a jobs plan.” Cain looked knocked off his game, and will no doubt give fodder to opponents who say he is naive about the ways of Washington and unprepared to deal with Beltway lawmakers. And to top it off, he inexplicably threw Romney a lifeline saying he agreed with Romney who supported TARP but faulted its implementation. Score that as thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double.

On the positive side, Bachmann had her best outing since the early debates. She was measured and informed in tracing the financial crisis to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae policies. She also dissected the Independent Patient Advisory Board and the Obama Medicare cuts, arguing that the bureaucracy shouldn’t be empowered to make one-size fits all for elderly, sick patients. If Perry collapses entirely and Cain ticks downward, she could well be the beneficiary in the critical state of Iowa. She trotted into second base on this performance.

Santorum also had one of his best outings. He derided 9-9-9. He reached out to social conservatives at the end, making the point that intact families are essential to preventing poverty. He showed a lighter tone as well, tamping down on his telltale intensity that can come across as excessively angry. He also pitched his message to middle income voters, stressing the need to bring back manufacturing to the country. He took a swipe at Cain, saying industrial state Democrats would support Santorum’s plan but Cain’s 9-9-9 scheme wouldn’t pass. He got to first base, in this one and is threatening to steal second.

Jon Huntsman will be remembered for a cringe-inducing reference to the Pastor Robert Jeffress incident. Paul finally made a well-supported point on the inanity of holding up Greenspan as a model Fed chairman. Newt Gingrich went around the bend, threatening to lock up former Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

In not getting bruised and by demonstrating his superior campaign skills, Romney came out the big winner. Perry didn’t help himself a bit, and now risks slipping behind Bachmann and others. Bachmann brought her A game, but now will have to translate that to fundraising and support in Iowa. And Santorum seems ready to move up as others fail. This was, most of all, Cain’s big moment. He didn’t maximize his opportunity, and instead likely increased doubts about his preparedness to run for and be president. Much can change between now and January, but unless other candidates change the dynamics of the race, Romney will slowly but surely move to lock up the nomination.

More on the debate from PostOpinions

Dionne: Romney is in command now

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