Neither Rick Perry nor Mitt Romney should have been surprised by a single serious question during Thursday night’s clunker of a debate sponsored by Fox News and an obtrusive Google promoting word clouds and grainy average-citizen videos. But the obviousness of the questions (“Governor Perry … where is your jobs plan?”) meant that viewers were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the briefing books of the leading candidates as they gave their scripted answers.

Romney, the ultimate wind-up candidate, had no problem acing his rehearsals, rarely faltering in delivering his well-practiced putdowns. Striving a little too hard for a catch phrase like Ronald Reagan’s famous “There you go again,” Romney twice responded to Perry attacks with the line, “Nice try.” When the Texas governor predictably tried to walk away from his most searing attacks on Social Security, Romney was ready with the squelch, “You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”

Sometimes, though, Romney’s over-preparation was so thorough that it deprived him of even a glimmer of spontaneity. When the topic inevitably turned to Perry’s support for in-state tuition for illegal aliens, Romney rattled off the exact amount of additional tuition that out-of-state students pay at the University of Texas: “That’s $22,000 a year.” Needless to say, that is not a statistic that would-be presidents usually have been called upon to memorize.

As a debater, Perry certainly does not lack aggressiveness. He eagerly went after his Massachusetts rival over his ever-shifting political persona: “I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with.” And Perry retains the ability to tell a whopper with a straight face. Asked about his testy relationship with George W. Bush, his predecessor as Texas governor, Perry replied, “We got a great rapport. I talk to the president from time to time, call him on his birthday, wish him happy birthday.” You almost expected Perry to brag that he had “friended” Bush on Facebook.

Perry’s problem on a debate stage appears to be the same one that bedeviled him as a student at Texas A & M—not always doing his coursework. Repeatedly, Perry’s on-message responses started strong and then petered out as if the candidate was desperately trying to remember those parts of the briefing book he merely skimmed.

Asked a hypothetical about Pakistan losing control of its nuclear arsenal, Perry wisely ducked the explosive what-would-you-do-first part of the question. But then Perry veered off on an odd tangent that took him from the Haqqani terrorist network in Pakistan to our reputed reluctance to sell advanced F-16s to India, Pakistan’s historic enemy. Next, Perry drifted into our unwillingness to fully arm Taiwan. About all that was missing was a critique of our military posture towards Luxembourg.

After three rocky debates, it is easy to imagine that Perry is beginning to regret that Kennedy and Nixon ever started this tradition in the first place. Judging from debates alone, the idea of Rick Perry comes across as much more compelling than the reality. But just because Perry is not closing the sale with sympathetic conservatives does not mean that Romney automatically benefits.

What was striking about Thursday night’s debate is that never before in memory have so many presidential candidates crowded on the same stage who have no visible route to the nomination. A ninth lectern was added to accommodate former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a libertarian, legalize-marijuana gadfly. The huge gap between the Big Two and the Tiny Seven oddly enough makes it more difficult for Romney to dislodge Perry as the front-runner.

Romney and Perry are total opposites—stylistically, culturally, and, for the most part, ideologically. That is why a Tea Party loyalist increasingly disappointed with Perry’s readiness to be president will not automatically shift to Romney. The problem is that there is no obvious way station between Perry and his only plausible rival.

Michele Bachmann, in theory, might have been a beneficiary of Perry’s wavering support. But Thursday night, she spent the first half of the debate in her own Fortress of Solitude, almost never speaking or mentioned. When Bachmann finally emerged, she gave a disingenuous answer to why she repeated the inflammatory charge (challenged by all reputable medical experts) that vaccinating young girls for HPV causes mental retardation. “I didn’t make that claim,” Bachmann insisted, despite strong evidence to the contrary. The Minnesota congresswoman claimed that she was merely channeling a mother who came up to her after last week’s debate.

There were moments Thursday night when it seemed like Rick Santorum might displace Bachmann as a potential right-wing challenger to Perry. But Santorum’s debate performance drifts to the extremes. He can give a strong answer to one question and then go off the rails with the next. Confronted with a video question from a gay soldier who had served in Iraq, Santorum was unyielding in his demand for heterosexuality in the military. The former Pennsylvania senator did not even thank the solider for his service in a war zone. But Santorum did insist, “Any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.” Needless to say, that comment displayed a naiveté about the lives of soldiers since the days of Achilles and Hector at the gates of Troy.

Mercifully, the Republicans will now have a three-week break before the next debate. As important as debates have become in choosing a nominee, they also can take on a staleness if they are clustered too closely together. Inevitably, Perry and Romney will keep on jousting from afar. But the Republican race may remain static for a while unless a third candidate unexpectedly gains traction.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @waltershapiroPD