You’ve got to love a good debate. You can even learn to love a bad one. The participants on contestants' row for the 2012 Republican primary have offered less an examination of policy and something more like idiot theater. Sure, some of it’s been the standard tack: each candidate has wheeled out empty campaign promises full of bogus bromides and tautological assertions, and then taken the beleaguered stance that any question not of the “Coke or Pepsi?” variation is a “gotcha” stumbler perpetrated by the elite liberal media. But more than any season in recent memory, the 2011 Republican debates have been a working primer for how to insert one’s foot in one’s mouth.

Practically every candidate — barring Romney and Paul — could use a lesson in public speaking. All of them could learn how to properly prepare themselves when faced with crisis or besieged by opponents. This sort of political pig-piling is par for the course, and sometimes all it takes is the slightest gaffe to throw a well-oiled campaign off the rails. Howard Dean had a red carpet to the 2004 Democratic nomination until some harmless campaign caterwauling sent him back to Ralph Nader levels of elected probability.

This year, practically everyone’s taken turns on the political yo-yo. For every candidate to emerge as a possible contender, they’ve invariably been pushed under the bus, either by their opponents or, more often than not, their own lack of oratory savvy. During every one of the nearly dozen debates we’ve had this year, we’ve seen train-wreck levels of embarrassment, each reminding us how ill-prepared these candidates are for the highest office in the land.

The first sacrificial lamb was Bachmann, who in August unexpectedly rose to win the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll and has sunk like a lead balloon since. The Minnesota lawmaker has been blasted for everything from her lack of leadership experience to owning a clinic that prays homosexuality out of people, but it was her off-the-cuff — and notably uneducated — remarks that the founding fathers opposed slavery and the HPV vaccine causes cancer that really sunk the ship.

Then it was Perry, whose debate performances have gone from funny to painful. Perry, who referred to Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme” and later bragged about overseeing the deaths of 234 people while Governor of Texas, alienated his base for supporting a tuition credit for illegal immigrants’ children, and defended his use of an order to mandate young girls to receive the HPV vaccine. Things got worse. First it was revealed that Perry owns a ranch formerly called “Niggerhead.” Then, the final straw: he couldn’t name the three federal government agencies he said he’d eliminate if nominated Commander in Chief. His public flubs have resembled cruel experiments in human mortification.

Then it was Cain. The former Godfather’s Pizza executive was an upstart who rose to default prominence after Perry and Bachmann’s falls from grace — and then he joined them just as fast. Four women have now publicly accused him of sexual harassment. He admitted he didn’t understand the U.S.’s role in Libya, and it was recently discovered his much-heralded ‘999’ tax plan would actually raises taxes for many Americans.

Now it’s Gingrich, who’s now emerged as the Republican Party’s flavor of the week. Gingrich got big conservative points when he stated that Occupy Wall Street protesters should “get a job, after they take a bath.” He then proceeded to alienate his base when he said many illegal immigrants who’d been in the U.S. for decades shouldn’t be deported. Gingrich, who looks about as Presidential as a middle-aged Frisch’s Big Boy mascot can hope for, has now said children should be hired to replace janitors.

There’s no surprise why Romney’s been in the lead this entire time. He’s smarter, he’s a better speaker, he’s more successful, he’s got the experience and he’s more charismatic than his rivals. In short, he’s the most believably presidential. If Romney wants to keep his number-one slot, he needs to do more than simply avoid saying something stupid. Romney now needs to move his campaign into a second phase, and make sure he clarifies his message. Despite his successes, Romney’s got a much bigger hurdle ahead: he needs to somehow convince southern conservatives to vote for a Mormon from Massachusetts who passed notably ‘socialized’ healthcare reform legislation. Good luck.