Maybe the most telling moment of last night's Republican debate came not when Rick Perry said "propes" instead of "props," but when he appeared to forget Rick Santorum's name. "Let me just respond to the last individual," Perry said, as he avoided answering a question about America's persistent racial inequities. With the press-appointed "official start" of the 2012 campaign, and the first debate featuring all the universally acknowledged front-runners who are actually running, it is time for us to bid a regretful goodbye to those individuals who make the early months of the campaign fun: the third-tier fringe candidates like Rick Santorum.
You could tell when the Politico/MSNBC-sponsored debate began that the moderators wished there were fewer people onstage. Almost the first 15 minutes of the debate were spent on an argument solely involving the only two people with a shot at the nomination: Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Brian Williams and John Harris clearly preferred addressing their serious questions to those two, and many of the questions aimed at the others onstage were about one of those two ex-governors. Poor Michele Bachmann, heretofore the only credible non-Romney candidate, seemed barely to be present. Huntsman got a lot of airtime, but he's been getting plenty of press attention this whole time.
The lovable third-tier candidates -- the guys who were never, ever going to win this -- will have fewer and fewer chances to share their madness with America after last night. Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will remain in the race for a while longer (or a lot longer, in Ron Paul's case), but going forward, they'll be less likely to be invited to debates, less likely to inspire "dark horse" fantasy analysis stories, and less likely to inspire blog posts documenting crazy things they said. (Well, fine, they'll continue inspiring blog posts until I stop writing them because people have stopped clicking on them.)
The debates do lose something when the candidate pool coagulates into two very slightly different people. Ron Paul will occasionally bring up the few things he is right about, like the drug war. Herman Cain is the funniest person on the stage, without fail. Rick Santorum is fun to have around as a reminder that sometimes assholes aren't rewarded for their awfulness. And Newt Gingrich can still nail an applause line -- he got love from the (deplorable) audience by demanding an English-only law and rather pointlessly attacking the media for ... asking him to debate his colleagues.
Of course Bachmann is still in third place. But the data indicate she could still win the Iowa caucuses in January. So it was truly weird that the moderators ignored her in favor of hopeless cause (and liberal favorite) Jon Huntsman. Neglecting Bachmann does help the press create the "narrative" of her impending collapse now that Perry's in the race. But that's premature. We've got a year to watch Perry and Romney beat each other up; there's no reason to prematurely push everyone else out. Even if everyone else is laughable.