Nothing else in the debate will matter. It will always be known as the debate when it happened. Everyone who has ever been at a loss for words or stumbled in a public setting could relate. The “it” was a nightmarish stumble, a sort of epic brain freeze by Texas Gov. Rick Perry:

It was a moment so painful, the embarrassment so great, that the principal reaction among tough-as-nails reporters was pity. Fifteen minutes or so later in the debate, he recalled that the third agency he was planning to eliminate was the Energy Department. But in bringing it up once more, he only underscored the flub.

Before that moment, Perry was essentially ignored, getting very few questions and reverting to his sleepy-mode. Such is the fate of a candidate in single digits in the polls. Now the question is: Will he debate again? More generally, one has to wonder if Perry’s heart is still in this race.

As for the rest of the debate, Herman Cain was asked briefly about his sexual harassment claims. He, of course, denied he ever did anything to these women. But then and throughout the debate he was glum, stern and entirely unlike the jovial character whom audience had grown to like. Certainly, this hasn’t been a fun week or so for him. But in an revealing moment, in response to a healthcare reform question, he referred to a former speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as “Princess Nancy.” It was precisely the sort of disrespectful image he had been fighting for more than a week. For the first time, he came across as a jerk, not a charmer.

Moreover, to every question, be it on housing or stock market regulation, Cain’s answer was the same: Tout economic growth and remind everyone of his 9-9-9 plan. It was obvious he really didn’t have a grasp of any material beyond that. His return to the 9-9-9 plan at one point evoked laughter, which seemed directed at him. That’s all he knows, and voters have figured it out.Cain will no doubt have to endure more appearances by the accusers (they are talking about a joint press conference), but the real problem is the facade of a cheery business executive is gone. He seemed badly outmatched on substance by both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.The problem for him, whether you buy the sexual assault claim or the harassment charges or not, is that there is no longer a real rationale for voting for him. There are other, better prepared and more interesting candidates. Quite simply, the Cain flash has dimmed.

Mitt Romney was once again the winner. He was never questioned seriously on RomneyCare, took aggressive questioning by John Harwood and patiently explained his views on the economy, and seemed entirely at ease on the range of economic issues. In affirming his commitment to tax breaks for the middle class and preserving Medicaid for the poor he seemed to have already moved on to the general election. He was a bit looser and feistier than usual; perhaps some stray hair made him seem more relaxed and less programmed.

Newt Gingrich had a typically strong outing. He got into more dust-ups with the moderators, as is his wont. Told to explain his healthcare approach in 30 seconds, he refused. Host Maria Bartiromo took him to task and prompted a grudging answer. He shines with the putdowns of the media, chiding them for failing to confront the OWS protestor with the inanity of their own anti-business rhetoric. He is skilled at dissecting bad policy. Soon he may be pressed to be more explicit about his own.

One problematic question however may come back to bite him. He was asked about $300,000 contract with Freddie Mac. He denied there was lobbying and insisted that he was advising them not to do what they proceeded to do, namely make loans to borrowers who were not creditworthy. It had better check out.

As for the rest, Rick Santorum hurt his own cause by whining about the lack off questions and reminding everyone he had been a senator. It’s not an attractive TV persona. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gave generally solid answers, but seemed also to be an afterthought in the proceedings. Most noteworthy was her agreement with Mitt Romney on several points, including getting tough with China. Perhaps there is a Cabinet position in there for her.

Romney as the front-runner wins both on the strength of his own performance and the failure of his opponents to land any punches. Gngrich helped himself as well. And kudos go to the CNBC crew (minus Jim Cramer, who sets a new low for annoying moderators).

The debate itself was conflict free. No candidate went after another. All wounds were self-inflicted. The questioning was substantive, with only the occasional disconcerting presence of Cramer — think of a caffeinated weasel — to disturb the proceedings. Had it not been for the very, very bad moment for Perry, the debate would likely fade into the history books. Unfortunately for Perry, it will long be remembered for that painfully long moment.

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