Aimless Republican debate in Ames, Iowa

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Last night eight of the Republican candidates for president debated in Ames, Iowa, on the Fox News channel. Maybe it’s overdoing it to call it aimless, but it’s difficult to see how it moved the competition significantly beyond where it was before the debate happened. And the imminent entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the race will certainly shake things up far more dramatically than anything that occurred during the debate. And then there’s Sarah Palin, continuing to circle the election season like an ever-so-nonchalant bird of prey. Neither, obviously, was on the stage last night.

Mitt Romney seemed in this debate to be acting as if he believed that he can essentially coast to victory; his aim seemed to be to avoid sparks, keep smiling and look presidential. On that level he succeeded, but he surely gave little reason for people who do not support him to consider changing their minds. Everyone in-the-know said before the debate that Tim Pawlenty needed to attack Michele Bachmann; he did but hardly increased his stature by doing so. Michele Bachmann responded by going all-but-nuclear, in accusing Pawlenty of being just like Barack Obama. The exchange between them lacked both grace and perspective, but so long as the pundits got what they wanted I guess it’s alright.

Newt Gingrich had many of the best moments in the debate, often by zeroing in on those same “gotcha” pundits, and daring them to put substantive questions on policy ahead of horse-race questions. Yet Gingrich is seen for some pretty good reasons to be only slightly less unelectable than Ron Paul, who grabbed his usual monster share of the limelight and applause lines.

Rick Santorum seemed incapable of speaking without a pained expression on his face and in his voice, and the sooner he puts himself out of his own misery and drops out of the race, the better. He’s a decent chap but a man out of time. Herman Cain needs something additional to what he’s showing to rise to a credible level … and he didn’t show it last night. Jon Huntsman: What can you say about a guy who can’t even manage to get his eyebrows to work in concert with one another? That’s a cheap shot, but c’mon. If Santorum is a man out of time then Huntsman is a man for whom no one should have any time. In the current political climate he represents antimatter.

Fox News denied Thad McCotter the opportunity to appear, which is a shame for him as he has been trying to seriously compete in the Iowa straw poll, and participating in the debate would have allowed his candidacy to rise above sea level in national terms.

But, in the end, if most political debates are unremembered, this particular one will not even require unremembering. Fuggedaboutit.

I have a feeling that all the most interesting stuff in this primary race is about to start happening …