When the seven candidates for the Republican nomination for president assembled for the first debate last night, the most visible candidate was the absent one — Sarah Palin, yet to nominate, no organisation to speak of, yet touring early primary states in her “we the people” bus.

Had she been there, the other nominees would have bent around her like light round a star. As it was, she was probably on a soft shoulder in backwoods Iowa somewhere while “we the people” got an axle repaired, some farmer bending her ear about ethanol, wondering why the hell she was doing this.

Without La Palin, some commentators thought the proceedings became relatively more rational than they would otherwise be. But that is only by American standards. For anyone else, the flight to fantasy appeared total — a full expression of the essentially theological view of free enterprise in the US.

If only this mighty power could be freed of its state shackles! Targets for abolition or privatisation included the Environmental Protection Agency, the social security system (“privatise it, like in Chile”), the union movement via right-to-work laws.

Without shackles growth could be as high as 5% annually, Tim Pawlenty had said. No, said Ron Paul, it could be 10-15% if only central banking was abolished. The Congressional debt ceiling — a law originally intended to be symbolic — would not be raised without further cuts, said Congress folk Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann (it will be).

Indeed, said Newt Gingrich, had we let private enterprise do it, we would have had a permanent base on the moon by now. (“How come there ain’t no money here? Cos Wal-Mart’s on the moon.”)

But there was plenty of chance for free-ranging craziness too. Herman Cain, the one black candidate, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, had to clarify his statement that he wouldn’t want any Muslims in his cabinet, that being, well, unconstitutional and all.

Everyone came out against abortion, most in favour of militias to police the borders, and Paul said the government shouldn’t oblige doctors to give emergency treatment to illegal immigrants.

Pawlenty, having called the Democrats health care plan “Obamney Care” — slating Mitt Romney for introducing it in Massachusetts — refused to repeat it on the podium, making him the goose of the evening.

And the whole of the United States was made to look terminally brain damaged by the decision of CNN to throw in some “fun” either/or questions — Elvis or Johnny Cash, etc. No doubt a momentarily tricky moment for Santorum, whose now universal eponym is a bit of an either/or itself.

The more collegial tone of the debate surprised many commentators, who had assumed the right wing candidates would use it as an opportunity to put down their marker with the base. The eyes of the nation had turned to Michelle Bachmann for that, she of the crazy-lady eyes, who had accused Obama of spending two billion dollars on a state visit to India, refused to fill in the census for black helicopter reasons, comparing health care to fascism, etc.

But she kept it under control by and large here, which suggests either that is more of an act than many have otherwise believed (designed to rally her Tea Party-ish base in otherwise liberal Minnesota to stay in Congress) — or that she is at least smart enough to know she has to imitate the humans at times.

Her pitch now is to the hard-right lobby groups, to establish that she is not the next Christine O’Donnell, the masturbating Christian witch of Delaware. Hence her recent remark in an interview that when looking for beach reading, she usually takes von Mises. (Better than Palin, who takes “all newspapers”, which becomes unwieldy.)

No-one thinks Bachmann can win. Does Bachmann? Maybe in her more florid moments, but she is for the most part angling for sufficient clout to claim some committee chairmanships in 2013. She’s been helped by the rise of Palin, who made crazylady Republicanism a thing, but she doesn’t have a skerrick of Palin’s frontier narrative or mythical status.

What of the others? Gingrich is gone, or so his core campaign staff believe, having quit last week. Most likely they all got better offers, but they wouldn’t have jumped this early if Gingrich hadn’t gone on a Greek sea cruise with his wife while the campaign was being hauled into place in the three early primary states.

Cain is in it to wave the black Republican flag — which is like the US flag, save for Oreos where the stars should be. Santorum never had much of a chance, but he may well be the first candidate in history put decisively beyond use by an internet meme.

Poor bastard. He must wake at 3am thinking of Captain Boycott and Thomas Crapper and realise with total clarity how he will be remembered in a century’s time.

There are other potential right candidates, such as Texas governor Rick Perry who will base their decision to run in part on this debate — and if Bachmann is the only right-wing candidate remaining, would probably make a run.

Pawlenty has been so badly damaged by his each-ways bet on “Obamney Care” that he may now never recover in a race where he remains the most colourless and uninspiring candidate. That leaves Mitt in the middle.

But it also leaves Paul — and the one interesting possibility in the whole set-up. Should no real right candidate emerge, would it be possible that Ron would take the Iowa primary?

Would he be competitive in South Carolina? Huckabee took Iowa, which was surprise enough, but the prospect of a gold-standard isolationist becoming the official internal opposition may well keep more members of the GOP machine awake at nights with santorum. Sorry, Santorum.

Beyond that, there is Palin, out in the Iowa cornfield, howlin’ at the private stars, hunting by smell and teeth for meat for her two grandchildren.

And everyone outside America asks that one question: was there no-one on that podium with the modicum of respect for self, and for their own country, to reject the “Pepsi or Coke” question as the final decline of American public debate into shaming infantilism?