The kid stays in the picture. (POOL/REUTERS)

In the sitcom of the debates, the Sioux City Showdown episode celebrated the quirks of our favorite minor characters. Rick Perry, who made a lot of football metaphors and squinted benignly at the camera. Michele Bachmann, who at one point called someone a “hegemon” and told people that ignoring Iran would be the action of “fools and knaves,” leading one to suspect that she had fallen asleep while listening to a book on tape. Santorum, who said that he was tolerant of gays, which made me worry that he had redefined “tolerance” in a way similar to the way sex columnist Dan Savage had redefined “Santorum.”

The most fearsome opponents at the debate weren’t the debaters at all. They were the moderators.

They called Gingrich, point-blank, “dangerous,” “outrageous,” and “totally irresponsible.”

Gingrich parried amiably enough, although Bachmann’s attack on his affiliation with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac landed, leaving him somewhat lamely insisting that he had never actually changed his views for money, which I guess is a relief.

“We can’t have as our nominee for the republican party somebody who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” Bachmann said. “They need to be down, not built up.” This met with noisy applause.

The debate had its moments. Romney was resurgent, nailing the best serious line of the evening — “Our president thinks America’s in decline. It is if he’s president. It’s not if I’m president.”

Perry had the best humorous line of the evening, calling himself the Tim Tebow of the Iowa Caucuses. This makes sense — he was the guy who looked like a football player and really did not belong at a Republican debate. No, I’m sorry, he was the Tim Tebow of Iowa, the man who kept forcing prayer into scenarios where prayer is not generally expected, like football games and campaign ads. No, wait, he was the Tim Tebow of Iowa, the — well, the audience liked it, and I’m sure we are going to read a lot more coverage about it than his performance warranted.

This is Iowa, a caucus state where Paul and his loyal supporters — before the last question, someone yelling unintelligibly about “the Federal Reserve System” was dragged away — stand poised to do well, and the moderators seemed to think some sort of drubbing was in order.

Bret Baier — whose total and utter lack of irony in referring to the candidates, in turn, as President Paul or President Bachmann was commendable — pushed Paul to admit that even in the face of credible intelligence about Iran’s nuclear capacity or dubious designs for the Straits of Hormuz, Paul would pull back sanctions on Iran — a position that places him left of President Obama.

“Sanctions are an act of war when you prevent goods and services from going into a country!” Paul declared. “We need to approach this a little differently.” He also managed to call Iraq a “useless war,” which may not help in the coming weeks.

In the great television series of the Republican debates, this was an episode that reminded me why we’ve come to love the quirky minor characters. And it was the last episode before Iowans are forced to choose — unless Newsmax takes me up on the offer to moderate their debate.

After tonight, I’m going to miss the gang.