And debates are ratings winners, finally providing CNN with regularly scheduled programming that doesn't induce narcolepsy. The Oct. 18 Las Vegas gathering - aka "Romney touches Perry" - drew 5.6 million viewers, huge for cable, more than that night's Biggest Loser.
True, many viewers tune in for the gaffes and the pure entertainment value, the Nov. 9 debate in Michigan being the one to beat, when Rick Perry, who looks like a superhero in street clothing, suggested eliminating three cabinet departments - Commerce, Education, and TBA. Myself, I've expended considerable energy trying to figure out whom Ron Paul most resembles, Walter Brennan or the Muppets' Statler and Waldorf.
Also, why Santorum?
There's the joy of listening to "The Voice," Herman Cain. What a wonderful country this is that a man with a gorgeous, hypnotic baritone, prone to bromides and not a solitary plausible policy solution, believes he has a chance to be leader not merely of a pizza chain but also of the free world.
Tuesday's debate on national security, staged at an all-white enclave of Washington, provided true substantive differences, as well as the ghosts of Republican administrations past. (Ed Meese! Paul Wolfowitz!) The debate demonstrated that the GOP can enlarge its tent from its earlier, tea party tendencies, and welcome some political diversity, not just fearmongering and callous indifference.
Now we have the Newtonian Surge. Gingrich, the former House speaker, was placed center stage, honoring his spike in the polls, his campaign once all but dead after massive staff defections. On Tuesday, Gingrich proved himself a centrist on immigration: "I'm prepared to take the heat, to say let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families." Michele Bachmann immediately swatted away such views, trying to stoke some seething.
Anger remains the prime motivator among early engaged citizens. The conversation so far has been dominated by "hot" candidates: Bachmann, Perry, really Anyone But Mitt. Those politicians packing the most emotional heat, giving voice to disenfranchised citizens' discontent with the president and our current muddle, won early favor with the crowds and the media. Romney is too cool, too calm, too variable in his opinions, to charm the enraged far right.
Republicans are in denial, and understandably so. They can't believe that out of so many options, eight pols still in the game, a Massachusetts Mormon who was once pro-choice and who passed a state health-care plan will ultimately be their candidate. They keep wanting to date. And they're right to keep looking because cool, calm, pro-choice, health-care-loving Obama appears on cruise control to crush Mitt.
Meanwhile, Democrats watch dumbfounded that Republicans don't want Jon Huntsman, the sane, smart, experienced, unflashy debater who may be the only guy on stage who could unseat the president. Also, that cranky Ron Paul, who does seem like a lost Muppet, sometimes talks a whole mess of sense. "I think the Patriot Act is unpatriotic, because it undermines our liberty," he said. Also, "the biggest threat to our national security is our financial condition."
Folks, you could do a whole lot worse than to watch a GOP debate, one of our best reality programs, a combo of Fear Factor and The Amazing Race. After the holiday season, January offers a grand buffet. How many debates are scheduled? Six! I am sometimes prone to exaggerate, friends, but here I do not.
Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or @kheller on Twitter.
Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.