And so the Republicans made it through debate #5, the Tea Party debate. Somehow or another, no one, unless I missed it, mentioned light bulbs, teleprompters, or birth certificates, at least not presidential ones. On the other hand, we can now add this debate audience cheering for people dying without health insurance to the last GOP debate audience cheering for executions to our understanding of the current Republican Party.

The problem with assessing these Republican presidential debates continues to be that there are only two people up there on the stage who are really, honest-to-goodness, running for president. I don’ t know what Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul think they’re doing, but they aren’t serious candidates for the nomination and never have been. I don’t know: Do they mistakenly believe that they really could wind up in the White House in January 2013? Are they trying to win a book contract or a slot on Fox News? Are they trying to nudge the party in their direction on the issues? If it’s the latter — why are they so obviously incapable of speaking about those issues with a minimal amount of knowledge?

All I know is that it makes it hard to sort through what effect, if any, these debates have on Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.

Perry, meanwhile, is reminding everyone that running for president is hard. Especially if you’re leading in the polls. Everyone came after Perry tonight, and there’s no question that some punches landed — on immigration, on immunization, perhaps on other issues. For whatever it’s worth, my sense in watching it was that not much changed; Perry neither proved that he was a safe bet for party actors looking for a nominee nor that he is clearly unable to do the job. That’s only to be expected; this thing isn’t going to be decided in debates.

At any rate, the GOP keeps spinning farther and farther from the general election median voter every week. And, in many cases, reality — do these folks really believe that the biggest economic problem today is runaway inflation? That Americans are desperate to rid themselves of Social Security? That policies enacted by Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2009 (whatever you think of those policies) caused a recession that began in 2007? That “exceptionalism” is the beginning and end of foreign policy? I know, one expects rhetoric that plays to the audience, and I’m sure that most of these positions and the rhetoric that goes with it is carefully polled and focus-grouped (as well it should be). And that’s the real story here: The audience has been trained by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the rest of that squad — and therefore a careful, cautious, Republican presidential candidate who is perfectly well-versed in the issues, solidly conservative in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, and knows exactly what he or she needs to do to win the Republican nomination is going to sound like a nut half the time.

That doesn’t mean that Perry or Romney will necessarily lose. But whichever one wins is going to be dragging a lot of otherwise unnecessary baggage with him when he takes on Barack Obama. And if it’s a close race otherwise, that baggage could easily make the difference.