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A Slow but Unsteady Debate for Perry

The consensus view is that Tuesday was another poor debate for Gov. Rick Perry — and an effective one for Mitt Romney.

The betting market Intrade had Mr. Perry’s odds of winning the Republican nomination at 13.9 percent just before the debate began on Tuesday. By midnight on Wednesday — two hours after the debate concluded — they had slipped to 13 percent. Herman Cain’s numbers also fell, to 9 percent from 10 percent.

Mr. Romney gained at their expense, according to the betting market. His odds improved to 66.6 percent after the debate from 63.9 percent beforehand.

My personal take on the debate agrees in part and dissents in part with the bettors. I did not think Mr. Romney had his best night — he was unnecessarily testy at times, both with the other candidates and the moderators, and was less concise than he might have been when talking about his support for the financial bailout in 2008. At times, Mr. Romney seemed to be taking the roundtable format of the debate too literally, forgetting that his real audience are the voters and party elites who were watching the debate at home.

But despite being the focal point of attention during the question-and-answer session between the candidates, Mr. Romney emerged without any real damage. And he was performing comfortably enough that he was able to re-orient a couple of questions toward messages that might appeal to general election voters — particularly with his focus on cutting taxes for the middle class.

Mostly, though, Mr. Romney performed well by comparison — particularly compared with Mr. Perry.

Had I been advising Mr. Perry before the debate, I would have told him that he didn’t need to hit any home runs — a solid and steady performance might suffice to reassure Republicans given the low expectations brought on by his erratic showings in past debates. Then he could adopt a more ambitious strategy at next week’s debate in Nevada.

That seemed to be Mr. Perry’s approach: he was more subdued than in past debates. He also had a less visible presence, with Mr. Cain — now ahead of Mr. Perry in the polls — instead receiving a greater share of the moderator’s attention.

Even with the low-risk strategy, however, Mr. Perry whiffed on a softball question about Mr. Romney’s health care bill. And at other points, like on a question about Ronald Reagan’s approach toward taxes, his demeanor crossed the line from subdued to soporific, with meandering answers that recalled Sarah Palin’s struggles in media interviews throughout 2008.

If there’s a place where I disagree with the betting markets, it is with the notion that Mr. Cain was made worse off, however marginally, by the debate. Mr. Cain also had his wobbly moments, like when he refused to identify the candidates he was considering to replace Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman. But if he deserved a middling grade on substance, Mr. Cain’s humor and affability came through, and he avoided major mistakes despite significantly increased airtime.

Moreover, to the extent that Mr. Perry struggled, it figures to benefit Mr. Cain as well as Mr. Romney: it is Mr. Cain who has gained ground in the polls as Mr. Perry has slipped. Much of that support is soft — with Mr. Cain being a stand-in for voters who want a conservative candidate but do not like their other choices — he may have taken at least baby steps toward solidifying it on Tuesday.

While the debate will probably not be critically damaging to Mr. Perry, his odds of upending Mr. Romney have continued to lengthen. Meanwhile, the more solid Mr. Cain’s support becomes, the harder it may be for Mr. Perry to recover his standing in the polls.

If Mr. Perry’s plan had been to play it safe in New Hampshire and to go for broke in Nevada, he may as well execute upon it and take a more aggressive posture next week: after each debate, Mr. Perry has found himself with less and less to lose.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.