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Candidates in the 26-debate GOP marathon seem already to have hit the wall.

With the 12th debate last Saturday and the 13th this coming Saturday, alternate front-runners in the Republican primary such as Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have fallen back, drained and giddy, and now it appears that Newt Gingrich, the second oldest and seemingly the least in shape, is striding toward the head of the pack.

Who would have thunk it back in the spring, as Gov. Perry might say.

Not even the comedy troupe of Saturday Night Live was able to top the outrageous performances of these eight GOP candidates debating their way to party nomination for the U.S. presidency.

Hands down, Perry bested Bill Hader's tragicomic portrayal of the sitting governor of oil-rich Texas who could not recall the Department of Energy as the third U.S. agency he would eliminate straightaway as president. With the SNL crew mimicking the other candidates guessing at the befuddled governor's elusive third choice, Kenan Thompson waded in as a wide-eyed "Herman Cain."

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The serially accused sexual harasser offered to stop Perry's torture by agreeing to "tell you about the women. I'll tell you all the vivid details, and there are a lot; just leave this poor man alone."

Still, the comedic triumph of Team GOP over the SNL troupe firmly establishes their act to date as a campaign running beneath the dignity of satire.

Such political burlesque might bring reality-show belly laughs but for the fact that this TV contest for the chief challenger in a two-party system is seen around the world — a world rocked by political-economic turmoil, Pakistan and the dread of nuclear weapons. And just as wacky Perry — a former front-runner with some $17 million in contributions — controls the Texas death chamber, the chief executive fingers the U.S. nuclear trigger that can destroy the planet several times over.

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Scary.

Mercifully, the Saturday-night debate on foreign policy was scheduled too late for spoofing by the SNL crew. This GOP swipe at foreign policy proved much too bloody to be drained through the filters of satire.

Rep. Bachmann, for instance, who sits on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and should know better, pressed for a return to the interrogation technique judged as torture by just about every military and diplomatic expert. Both candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — a former prisoner-of-war torture victim — stoutly promised to end waterboarding during their '08 campaigns.

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Lockstepping with Bachmann, Dick Cheney and the Mukhabarat, Cain would also empower U.S. interrogators to take blindfolded suspects to the very brink of drowning — if not beyond — by pouring quarts of water down their muffled noses until they utter whatever confessions the government seeks. "I don't see it as torture," said the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. "I see it as 'enhanced interrogation technique,' " the memorized euphemism drafted by the disgraced Bush administration.

The CBS questioners allowed the other candidates to dodge the "torture" question. However, the sly Romney is on record as not ruling out the use of waterboarding; he wants to keep the suspects guessing as to whether the U.S. will abide by the widely accepted rules of the international Geneva Conventions. 

To date, it has been the pattern of these debates for one of the low-polling candidates to check the excesses of the more outrageous performers of the evening — and, by whittling him or her down to size, secure a spike for themselves.

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In the case of waterboarding, it fell to Rep. Ron Paul to slap down Bachmann and Cain as "un-American" and to set the record straight: "Torture is illegal," said the other Texan on the panel. "Waterboarding is torture … It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral and it's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence."

On Romney's pledge to "go before the World Trade Organization and bring an action against [China] as a currency manipulator," it fell to Jon Huntsman, the lone diplomat in the crowd, to turn his fellow Mormon away from the fanciful. "I don't think, Mitt, you can take China to the WTO on currency-related issues," said the one fish adapted to international-policy waters. Indeed, the global organization geared to assist producers of goods and services in conducting their import-export business has no authority to field charges against a nation accused of gaining unfair advantage by manipulating its currency.

Just as the SNL crew is overtaxed in trying to spoof the unspoofable GOP campaigners, fact-checkers also are begging for mercy. One is reminded of how staffers used to trail behind candidate McCain on the '08 campaign trail with a shovel — cleaning up after this rogue-prone elephant. However, several members of the present group — Cain and Bachmann for certain — seem not to employ any politically astute staffers at all.

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Moving into the lead for the 13th debate Saturday is Gingrich, the very candidate whose staff quit en masse back in June. The 68-year-old former House speaker had left the campaign high and dry as he took his sleek third wife on a Mediterranean cruise.

It's a sure bet that the well-seasoned politician will hold to form and work mightily to turn his challengers' cutlasses away from his throat and toward that of the Democratic president.

We'll see how it goes.

Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.