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Texas Governor Rick Perry is one of the also-rans in the Republican primary. (Reuters)
Texas Governor Rick Perry is one of the also-rans in the Republican primary. (Reuters)

Andrew Ryan: Television

For real entertainment, watch the Republicans debate Add to ...

Seeking a little excitement on a dreary midwinter's night? Don't go looking on the regular broadcast outlets.

Of course your viewing options include the usual canned laughs on sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory or the standard plodding plotlines on Grey's Anatomy and The Mentalist, but the real humour and raw human drama will unfold tonight on the Republican Presidential Candidate Debate (CNN, 8 p.m. ET). Let's get ready to rumble!

More from Andrew Ryan

If you've been following these Republican debates, as I have, you're already keenly aware that the footrace to find the person to run opposite Barack Obama in this fall's presidential election is quickly coming to a head.

In advance of this Saturday's primary election, tonight's debate will air live from Charleston, S.C. – the U.S. state that has picked the winner of every GOP presidential nomination fight since 1980. Tonight could be the last chance for candidates to make a real impression before a TV audience, so expect fireworks.

But who the hell are these people? In recent weeks, candidates Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman have bowed out – a terrible shame since she was the only female and sort of crazy and he seemed like the only decent human being in the group – thereby leaving five over-50 males in dark suits in the Republican candidate race. This is going to be good.

I wouldn't dare to comment on each candidate's platforms or political abilities, but here's how they rate as TV personalities.

Ron Paul: C+

It's hard to root for the guy who looks like the teacher that failed you in high-school chemistry, but the U.S. representative from Texas has gained solid ground.

At 76, Paul is the oldest candidate, but still pretty sharp and the debates have solidified his role as group contrarian. Under the glare of the TV camera, however, he can't help looking exasperated every time he has to explain something to the debate moderator or to his fellow candidates – much like a teacher explaining a chemistry formula for the millionth time.

Newt Gingrich: C–

Is it possible to ooze smugness? Newt does, which may or may not help his chances to become president. Either way, he's outperformed in the TV debates to date, much to the surprise of talking heads on CNN and other news channels.

But take points off for being predictable. The Gingrich method involves lying in wait for one of the other candidates to make a gaffe or preposterous claim, and then pounce with his pre-scripted zinger. When Mitt Romney repeatedly denied he was a career politician, Newt jumped in with, “Can we drop some of the pious baloney?” Hey-yo!

Rick Perry: D

A very handsome man with virtually no TV presence, which almost makes you wonder how he became the governor of Texas. In the debates, Perry's tendency to vacillate on major issues has reduced him from front-runner to men's-store mannequin. After his five-second “brain-freeze” in the November debate, he never had a chance.

Rick Santorum: B–

The former senator from Pennsylvania comes off as a real person on television. Imagine that! He's a strong speaker, smart on the issues and forthright in his conservative-values viewpoint. But he also seems rather toothless on TV and usually too quick to back off confrontation. On those rare occasions he's taken on Romney in the debates, you can almost hear Santorum's advisers whispering, “Get him!”

Mitt Romney: C+

Will a man named “Mitt” be the Republican candidate for president? So far, Romney is the front-runner, and most pundits pick him as the man to beat. On TV, Romney is amazing to watch as he switches effortlessly between two personas.

Watch him tonight. At the proper moment, Romney becomes the Teflon Don, serene in his omniscience and completely unfazed by attacks from other candidates about his personal wealth or his past record as governor of Massachusetts.

And in the next breath, Romney becomes Mr. Roboto, the seemingly perfect politician, the type of guy the American public can see kissing a baby or fixing the economy or answering the panic phone at 3 a.m. Or any of those other things people expect of an American president. Some people are simply born to play a role.

Check local listings.

John Doyle will return.

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