WASHINGTON — On Tuesday night, seismologists at the Las Vegas Oceanographic Institute reported the first recorded movement of a hair on Mitt Romney's head.
Although it was only one follicle, displaced a mere 1.2 centimeters, the tremors were felt from Iowa to New Hampshire.
Simultaneously, these same scientists detected signs of life in Rick Perry, last seen comatose at the recent Dartmouth debate.
Such were the highlights of Tuesday's seven-person Republican brawl at the Venetian.
To be sure, there were other developments: Herman Cain stumbled, Newt Gingrich grinned, Rick Santorum landed a clean shot at Romneycare and Michele Bachmann made a spirited bid for a comeback.
But the main event was the scripted Rick Perry attack on Romney, reprising the old charge of Romney hiring illegal immigrants.
Perry's face-to-face accusation of rank hypocrisy had the intended effect. From the ensuing melee emerged a singularity: a ruffled Romney, face flushed, voice raised.
It lasted just a millisecond but it left its mark. The reassuring and unflappable command that had carried Romney through — indeed, above — previous debates was punctured.
True, his unflappability is, to some, less reassurance than a sign of inauthenticity. But if you are going to show real passion, petulance is not the way to do it.
Worse, Romney turned to the referee — moderator Anderson Cooper — with a plaintive "Anderson?" seeking intervention. An uncharacteristically weak moment.
What does he do when Vladimir Putin sticks a finger in his chest and starts yelling at a Vienna summit? Call for Anderson?
On substance, Romney remained as solid as ever, showing by far the most mastery of policy, with the possible exception of Gingrich — but without the lecturing tone and world-weary condescension.
Romney's command was best seen in his takedown of Cain's 9-9-9 plan.
Cain refused to concede the burden to consumers of a national sales tax added on to existing state sales taxes. Doggedly sticking to his point long after it had been undermined, he kept raining down metaphors about apples and oranges.
His national sales tax is a solution to a federal problem (a monstrous tax code), he insisted, and therefore irrelevant to any discussion of state sales taxes, which would exist regardless.
It took Romney one sentence to expose the sophistry. He simply pointed out that a real-world consumer with a basketful of apples and oranges would be paying the sum of the two sales taxes at checkout. Q.E.D.
Cain remained, as always, charming, engaging, confident and good-willed, the only person on stage other than Bachmann who didn't have a sour or a nasty moment.