If Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate were a play, Newt Gingrich would have been Big Daddy who lazily, tipsily wanders in at some point in the third act and makes a remark that sums the whole show up.

“Ask us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing Mickey Mouse games,” he told one of the debate’s moderators. True, no one was paying him any attention. They were too busily engaged in Mickey Mouse games to notice him.

The trouble is that the Mickey Mouse questions are what made tonight’s debate so interesting. No punches were pulled. At one point I think someone shivved Ron Paul.

The highlight (of a series of highlights — Tim Pawlenty will cook us dinner and/or mow our lawn, but not Mitt Romney’s lawn) of the debate fell squarely into Gotchaland, or, as we non-natives call it, Minnesota. It was the Minnesota Smackdown that will live in infamy. (If that’s Minnesota Nice, what’s Minnesota Mean? Do they disembowel each other?) TPaw and Bachmann scuffled for what felt like ten minutes — in Santorum’s mind, the entire time he should have been allowed to explain Who Am I and What Am I Doing Here — over each other’s attitudes and qualifications.

Michele Bachmann defined her leadership and legislative record in a way that should by rights put the kibosh on her early success. She is The Bachmann Who Stood On The Burning Deck Whence All But She Had Fled. It turns out that her leadership and congressional achievement entails loudly but ineffectively opposing things that pass anyway. Leadership? I “brought tens of thousands of Americans to Washington to fight the individual mandate.” Leadership? I opposed the debt ceiling! As Pawlenty sneered, these things passed regardless: “If that’s your idea of effective results, please stop, because you’re killing us.” Ooh, but she did introduce the Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act, “so people could all purchase the lightbulb of their choice.” This is not the sort of thing you mention if you have actually had any legislative accomplishments. I would say this debate sunk Bachmann, but the crowd seemed to like it. Their cheers whenever Bachmann spoke led me to believe that there was someone with legislative accomplishments in the back of the room whispering to them and they were responding to that. In fact, they seemed to like whatever Bachmann said, in spite of the content. Had she simply mouthed words and occasionally said “That’s not what Iowans want” and “Sarah Palin is my friend” she might have fared just as well.

But the Minnesota Smackdown was dynamic. There may only be room for one Minnesotan in the race, and after tonight’s unoffical theme of Pile On Bachmann it may be TPaw. He was on fire (or the TPaw equivalent: a gentle, indignant simmer), took back the moniker “Romneycare,” volunteered to come to your home and cook you dinner (or mow your lawn) if you could find President Obama’s economic plans, and made a somewhat inefficient swipe at Romney’s lawn acreage (But only “up to one acre” he told Romney. “Heh heh,” Romney replied.)

The Godots of the debate — Perry and Palin, both of whose spectres hovered briefly past, casting only a slight pallor over the sprightly shouting match — probably are glad they didn’t show. This was too fun to watch. More cooks would have spoiled the soup. Besides, we’re just getting to like this diverse ensemble cast! And you’d think they’d have the decency to stay out until we’d figured out who Rick Santorum was.

Santorum seems to feel sadly underrepresented in the mainstream media — he often shows up in people’s communities (40 in the last 14 days!) telling them “You may not see me on TV, but I promise you I am not a deranged lunatic, just a GOP 2012 presidential candidate whom you’re more likely to find in your home than on your TV!” I will try this the next time I want to break into a house. “No, I”m not a robber!” I’ll say. “I’m a GOP presidential candidate! The media just hasn’t really picked up on me yet. If anyone asks, my name is Rick Santorum.” “I”m just trying to gauge community interest. Kick my tires! (Didn’t Santorum see the elaborate piece I wrote about him? I’m hurt.) He also dislikes Iran because of their mistreatment of what sounded like “women and gays” but couldn’t have been, given his stances on abortion (not even for rape and incest) and gay marriage.

Ron Paul was Ron Paul.

Mitt Romney gave a lovely and poetic defense of his Robamneycare that seemed to fall on deaf ears but otherwise acquitted himself well, stressing that He Knows Jobs and Dang It, Capitalism Can Fix This and It Helps To Have Held A Job, President Obama, and Did I Mention That I Understand How Business Works? Let me tell you, when business has a problem, it calls me on my private line and we have a long chat about how to pull itself together. Business asked me to be the best man at its wedding!

Jon Huntsman spent most of his time looking constipated yet photogenic and seeming to feel that his invitation had gotten lost in the mail. He seemed to be apologizing for unapologetically running on his record. He believes in civil unions — but people who disagree with him? “They’re not wrong.” He believes in raising the debt ceiling — “I”m the only one on this stage” but why? Well, “this nation should never default.”

Herman Cain had business acumen! He assured us that he knows a lot more about “right of return” to Palestine than he used to, back years ago when that last debate happened. He is not obsessed with other people’s religions. But the people of Atlanta just do not understand Mormonism. This isn’t Cain’s problem, mind. It’s those Atlantans. He often goes and sits there with them, patiently, holding a copy of the Book of Mormon and using powerpoints, but Those Atlantans Won’t Have Any Of It. Also, they apparently are not fans of Sharia. Cain took the opportunity to reassure us that neither was he.

Every time the camera turned to Newt Gingrich I had to remember again that he was still in the race. Even he seemed at times to forget. He had a peculiar glint in his eyes as though he were trying to convince the electorate to come back to his place and examine his record collection later.

It made for good viewing.

But in the long view of the debate, Gingrich was right. For every substantive question about issues, there were ten asinine gotchas — including a wince-worthy one about Bachmann’s submissiveness to her husband.

Sure, such flippancy remains a temptation in this field. Just look at this piece. But Mickey Mouse questions result in more heat than light, like those lightbulbs Bachmann is trying to save.

More on the Iowa debate from PostOpinions:

Robinson: GOP Debate Land

Marcus: Gilligan’s GOP Island

Stromberg: The GOP debate in two minutes

Dionne: Perry, Huntsman, Romney win

Rubin: Romney, Bachmann win; Pawlenty fails