MANCHESTER, N.H. — There is a popular show on cable called "Storage Wars." In it, people are allowed to peer into abandoned storage lockers and then bid on the contents.
They are not allowed to enter the locker and can gaze at the jumble of stuff inside for only a brief period of time before the bidding begins.
The presidential debates have become "Storage Wars."
Candidates are limited to 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals in the (largely vain) attempt to make the debates swift-moving television.
The moderators, almost all of whom have been very good, know the contents of the lockers even though most of the public does not. Aside from being astute journalists, the moderators study huge briefing books to better bone up on what the candidates have said and done.
Still, the moderators have an obligation to make the debates entertaining, and so they urge the candidates to scrap and claw at each other.
Sometimes the candidates go along, and sometimes they won't. The media usually praise the more contentious debates and dismiss the others as lackluster.
But the reporters who cover these debates have seen more than a dozen of them to date. To the press, getting actual news from these debates is like breathing through a damp blanket. You have to struggle for the little oxygen you get. It's the intellectual equivalent of waterboarding.
The candidates, who also prep for each debate and study large briefing books, commit news at their own risk. They mostly stick to the same talking points as their speeches — and why shouldn't they? The candidates spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their speechwriters.
Yet the candidates can sense the ennui of the press and occasionally try to beak into the tops of the debate stories by being provocative.
"I make a very proud statement and a fact that we have a president that's a socialist," Rick Perry said in Sunday's NBC/Facebook debate held in Concord, N.H. "I don't think that our founding fathers wanted America to be a socialist country." (Most press accounts "cleaned up" the quoted by dropping the first 10 words, in order to make Perry seem more articulate, which is no easy task.)
His statement made headlines in the Huffington Post and the Los Angles Times.
Can Perry define socialism? Would he recognize socialism if he found it floating in his bowl of chili? We do not know. His statement was enough. It was an insult, and therefore it was news.
I don't condemn this. If we didn't have insults to write about, what would we write about?
In the opening minutes of Sunday's debate, Newt Gingrich began by saying, "Can we drop the pious baloney?"
My heart sank. If the candidates were going to drop the pious baloney, what on earth were they going to talk about for the next 89 minutes?
I shouldn't have worried. Having been meek as little mice at a Saturday night debate only 10 hours earlier — for which they were criticized for wimping out — they decided to be gutsier in the final debate before Tuesday's primary here.
Rick Santorum, who is in a close race with Ron Paul to see who loses more badly to Mitt Romney, said, "The problem with Congressman Paul is all the things that Republicans like about him he can't accomplish, and all the things they're worried about, he'll do Day One."
That is a very nifty line and probably cost Santorum a fortune.
And then there were the usual head-scratchers.
"If you look at the EPA," Gingrich said, "it is increasingly radical and increasingly imperial. Dust in Iowa is an absurdity."
Which may be news to the Swiffer Sweeper people.
What Gingrich is talking about is what the New York Times calls "something of an urban legend" and that the EPA calls the "myth" that it attempts to control the dust from farms.
Newt does not care. He lives on the knife edge between political reality and political fantasy. He uses coded words that are often called "dog whistles" in that they have a hidden meaning only certain people can hear.
Gingrich called Romney "a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate who even The Wall Street Journal said had an economic plan so timid it resembled Obama."
Timid. Weak. Wimpy. Worse.
Not the manly two-fisted brawler that macho Newt represents. In his own mind, at least.
"Leadership is not about reviling different groups," Jon Huntsman said.
He is right. To the Republican candidates, it is about reviling the same group — the other Republican candidates — in debate after debate.
And Americans are watching by the millions. They are peering inside the storage locker, trying to catch a glimpse, form an opinion, and hoping they are not buying a pig in a poke.
To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.