There is a certain sameness and predictability that soon descends on primary debates. Tim Pawlenty is asked to attack Mitt Romney on health care or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on her (lack of) accomplishments. They are all asked about gay marriage. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is asked to expound on his view of the GOP’s “militarism.”

But meanwhile the tough questions that would reveal the most about the candidates’ temperament and views go unasked. There is plenty to explore, and the next set of debate moderators should stop re-asking the familiar questions and explore some new ground.

Bachmann should be asked if the debt ceiling was not raised, how much would need to be cut, and how, specifically, would she get there. At the end of the debate, in perhaps the most effective moment by any candidate engaging with Bachmann, Rick Santorum spelled out the issue, telling Bachmann she wasn’t being an effective leader since her approach would in essence require a 42 percent cut in outlays. Put that in the form of a question and we’d have an interesting discussion next time around.

Romney has come up with a “good enough” answer, he hopes, on health care. He says his plan was different from ObamaCare, that it didn’t have a 10th Amendment problem and that he’ll get rid of ObamaCare. But the nagging issue for most conservatives is a philosophical one: Why does he think it’s acceptable for government, at any level, to force people to buy a product they don’t want? If he gives a convincing answer to that, one that satisfies conservatives that Romney’s instincts are not statist, he will go a long way toward clearing the road to the nomination. And if he doesn’t have a clear and convincing response, this issue will continue to nag him.

Tim Pawlenty has admitted he regrets raising the cigarette tax. He said he’s changed his mind on cap-and-trade. He should be asked how he could make such “errors” and why on some fairly significant issues (taxes, regulation) he got it so wrong. How confident should voters be that he won’t repeat these errors?

Newt Gingrich gave some pretty serious answers last night. But frankly he sounded like the pie-in-the-sky Gingrich of old in insisting we have to “rethink” our entire Middle East policy. What is he talking about?

Next time around we should also get a thorough discussion from the top-tier candidates about national security. It’s preposterous to let Paul drone on about allowing the mullahs to go nuclear. But the candidates at the top of the heap (including Texas Gov. Rick Perry) should be asked some serious national security questions: 1) Should we prepare and use a military option if needed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? 2) Is the Russian “reset” a failure, and if so, how should we restructure our relationship with Russia? 3) Would they reverse President Obama’s cuts in defense and what level of spending is required for a robust military? 4) What’s wrong with Obama’s approach to human rights? 5) Finally, how should we deal with an increasingly belligerent China?

The race is just beginning. But it’s not to early to start asking better, more substantive questions.