Eight Republican candidates are debating in Iowa Thursday night, and this debate, the third, promises to be the most Celebrity Deathmatch-like so far. It comes just a couple days before the Ames straw poll, so it's important for the candidates to capture voters' attention and show why they're better than the other guys. That means not only are the lesser-known contenders more likely to go after frontrunner Mitt Romney, they'll also have the knives out for Michele Bachmann, as her solid performance in the June debate helped her shoot to the top of many polls. Tonight marks Jon Huntsman's first debate, and Tim Pawlenty needs to at least "show signs of life," Chris Cillizza says.

We'll be liveblogging their quips, zings, and bad ties. Plus that policy stuff, too.

11:20p.m.: Fun debate, guys! Takeaways: It is not easy, but getting easier, being a girl. The candidates are further to the right on tax increases than some House Republicans. Despite the fiscal focus of the Tea Party, social issues still matter a lot. The wars matter less. 

11:01p.m.: The candidates offer their closing statements. Themes include solutions, God, and the excellence of the people of Iowa. Also, Pawlenty makes a Spiderman reference: with great power blessings comes great responsibility.
 

10:59p.m.: Looks like Michele Bachmann uses the hair product called Big Sexy Hair. Your humble aggregator can confirm this is a quality product.

(Photo via Associated Press.)

10:51p.m.: Ron Paul, the most expressive candidate on stage, says he's happy the rest of America is catching up to him on the need to eliminate the Federal Reserve:

10:42p.m.: After giving the leftiest answer ever in a Republican debate, Huntsman decries "the EPA's regulatory reign of terror."

10:40p.m.: Nancy Scola observes, "Romney getting a lot of mileage of watching others answer and looking vaguely sad." Example:

(Photo via Associated Press.)
 
10:39p.m.: Politico's Ben Smith notes, "Huntsman really hasn't allowed himself to be pulled to the right at all on same sex marriage."

10:34p.m.: Huntsman defends his support for civil unions. The majority of Americans agree with him. The majority of Republicans do not.

10:32p.m.: Bachmann is asked whether if she's elected president, she'll be "submissive" to her husband. She explains that  when she said she was submissive to her spouse, she meant she respected him. And he respects her. Moderator looks like a jerk.

10:28p.m.: The fight over Iran between Ron Paul and... pretty much everyone else got quite heated.

Paul vs. Bachmann:

Paul asks for extra time to finish:

Paul vs. Santorum:

Paul vs. Santorum, continued:

10:21p.m.: Slate's Dave Weigel tweets this photo as "what a reporters inbox looks like during a debate."

10:17p.m.: Second fun spat of the night, between Paul and Santorum over the threat of Iran. Santorum attacks Paul for not taking the Iran threat seriously, because Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. Paul counters by telling Santorum he's "got his history wrong"--that the U.S. has been in Iran since 1953, instigating the coup against the Shah. That led to blowback, Paul says, and "We plain don't mind our own business, that's our problem." More cheers.

10:09p.m.: Little discussion of our two (and a half?) wars. Romney says it's time for the troops of Afghanistan to take on the responsibility to defend the country against the Tablian, but attacks Obama for drawing down troops before the end of the fighting season in 2012. Huntsman says cyber attacks are acts of war.

Paul compares the threat of a nuclear Iran to the threat of the Soviet Union during the cold war (it is obviously much smaller he says.) Says we should have a "policy of peace" and economic engagement -- and "bring our troops home!" That last line gets big cheers.

10:08p.m.: Moderator asks Gingrich about his flip-flop on the intervention in Libya--he was for it before he was against it. Gingrich responds with an attack on the media, saying it's a "gotcha question." What hath Sarah Palin wrought?

10:03p.m.: Huntsman welcomes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's announcing his candidacy Saturday, into the race to talk about jobs. But Ron Paul takes a shot at him: "He represents the status quo." Bachmann welcomes everyone into the race--Perry, Sarah Palin, even the moderator! "We're very serious candidates, just like you, TV man!"

10:01p.m.: We come back from commercial break missing a candidate. Who's gone? Bachmann! She quickly returns. What was she doing?

10:00p.m.: NBC's Chuck Todd tweets, "Pretty obvious Pawlenty is acting like this debate is a do-or-die moment for him; He's taking a swing at everything tossed his way." But it's not exactly working for Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who writes, "Pawlenty could walk away with the pity vote tonight."

9:52p.m.: No love here:

(Photo via Associated Press.)

9:49p.m.: Moderator asks who on stage would vote against a plan from the debt "super commission" that included tax increases, even if the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases was 10 to 1. Everyone raises their hand -- except Michele Bachmann, who raises it, puts it down a little, then raises again.

9:48p.m.: MSNBC's Karen Finny observes, "How psyched is Romney to have Pawlenty and Bachmann run down the time..."

9:45p.m.: Pawlenty-Bachmann spatting draws jeers! This is much closer to a WWE Smackdown than the June debate. Iowa 1, New Hampshire 0.

9:41p.m.: Fox News moderator asks Romney's about today's news that as governor of Massachusetts, he appealed to Standard & Poor's asking for a AAA credit rating for his state, citing the fact that he raised taxes. The moderator asks if that means raising taxes is sometimes necessary. "Nope, I don't believe in raising taxes," Romney responds. So the tax increase was unnecessary?

9:39p.m.: Roll Call's Shira Toepliz tweets, "Bachmann's press secretary handing out info sheets labeled, 'the big government of tim pawlenty.' someone came prepared."

9:33p.m.: Herman Cain is asked about his struggles in interviews with the press on issues of foreign policy, like when he didn't know what "right of return" meant in reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict. "As for the right of return," he says somewhat angrily, "I know more about it now..." which sounds like a set-up for something like "than you ever will." But instead, he finishes with, "than I did then." Glad he doesn't know less.

9:30p.m.: Via The Atlantic's Jared Keller, looks like @ObamasDogFood already has a Twitter account.

9:26p.m.: One of the ads during the commercial break features Mike Huckabee--who won the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2008--in a somewhat cheesy spot asking for donations to repeal Obamacare. Hope the candidates were watching -- that could be one of them someday!

9:24p.m.: Commercial break. Perfect time to discuss the hard-hitting issues: the all-important ties. Huntsman: Cobalt blue. Cain: Lemon sorbet. Paul: Medium blue with white stripes. Pawlenty: Light blue with dark little dots. Santorum: Medium red with light little dots. Romney: A deep sort of periwinkle with sparse light dots. Gingrich: Maroon. Kind of skinny. Gingrich prides himself on being a man of ideas, so of course he's thinking outside the boring old red-or-blue tie box.

Bachmann's in a shimmery champagne suit.
 

9:17p.m.: It's the fiery Tim Pawlenty we've all been waiting for! He zings Romney, then attacks Bachmann for having a record of achievement in Congress that is "non-existent." He says, "That's not good enough for a president of the United States." 

Bachmann fires back by saying Pawlenty passed cap-and-trade in Minnesota--and then does the unthinkable: Compares her fellow Republican to President Obama.

And Pawlenty hits back again! Says that Bachmann says she's got a titanium spine, but "it's not her spine we're worried about it's her record of results." Pawlenty says Bachmann claims to have led the fight against Obamacare, TARP, etc, and yet all those policies were passed. If that's how she fights for conservative principles, Pawlenty says, "Please stop, you're killing us."

9:05p.m.: The first question is about the economy, and it's a study in contrasting styles. Michele Bachmann gets the question first, and says we should not have raised the debt ceiling, and that she could turn the economy around within three months. Then she quickly turns to a rousing pledge to "deliver" a message to President Obama: "You are finished in 2012! And you will be a one term president!" Mitt Romney is asked to respond, and, talking lightening-fast, rattles off a seven-point list of stuff he would do to fix the economy. As for the current president's programs: "I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food."

9:00p.m.: Game time! The Iowa crowd cheers like it's a football game.

8:57p.m.: Reason's Matt Welch highlights some interesting moments from the 2007 Republican debate in Iowa. Two of tonight's debaters were there four years ago" Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Paul sounded the same then as he does now: "We can achieve much more in peace than we can ever achieve in these needless, unconstitutional, undeclared wars." 

Romney? Less so. On healthcare: "We have to have our citizens insured...  What you have to do is what we did in Massachusetts." Since then, Romney has said that his health care plan was right for his state but a bad idea when implemented nationwide by President Obama.

As for foreign policy: In the June debate, Romney was skeptical of using military force overseas:

"We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation... Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
But four years ago, he was attacking then-President George W. Bush from the right over not intervening in Lebanon:
"I don’t know what President -- all the things President Bush has done, but I can tell you, I’m not a carbon copy of President Bush. And there are things I would do that would be done differently. I think when there’s a country like Lebanon, for instance, that becomes a democracy, that instead of standing by and seeing how they do, we should have been working with the government there to assure that they have the rule of law, that they have agricultural and economic policies that work for them, that they have schools that are not Wahhabi schools, that we try and make sure they have good health care. We bring together not just America, but all the nations of the civilized world. We help draw these folks toward modernity, as opposed to having them turn toward the violence and the extreme, which Hezbollah and Hamas brought forward. And that kind of a campaign of values, combined with our strong arms, speaking softly but carrying a strong stick, as Teddy Roosevelt said, that will help move the world to a safer place.
 
We’d love it if we could all just come home and not worry about the rest of the world, as Ron Paul says. But the problem is, they attacked us on 9/11. We were here; they attacked us. We want to help move the world of Islam toward modernity so they can reject the extreme..."
 
8:42p.m.: Like Romney, fellow debater Newt Gingrich also hit up the Iowa State Fair Thursday. Unlike Romney, and more like a stick in the mud, Gingrich clearly refused to have his picture taken with food, because there is no photographic evidence that he indulged in the fairs many delicacies -- such as this, deep-fried butter on a stick:

(Photo via Getty Images.)

8:30p.m.: Looks like Republicans still love torturing the ol' liberal media. The New York Times' Michael D. Shear explains that while tonight's debate is in Iowa State University's fancy Stephens Auditorium, the hundreds of reporters covering the debate will be forced to watch the show next door, at the school's 70s-era sports complex. The debate will be broadcast on the Jumbotron overhead, "forcing the assembled journalists to crane their necks to the ceiling to watch." The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza is ready to suffer for his journalistic duty, tweeting cheerfully, "Prepare to crain your necks!"

8:15p.m.: The Boston Globe's Matt Viser reports that Mitt Romney's campaign is already trying to raise money of Thursday afternoon's heckling incident (Romney defended businesses by saying "corporations are people, my friend.") A gaffe is in the eye of the beholder.

8:11p.m.: More debate prep: Politico's Ben Smith posts a photo of Tim Pawlenty's campaign manager jogging (shirtless!) pre-debate. Endorphins build confidence--why didn't the his boss throw on his Nikes and join him?
 
8:03p.m. After spotting Romney's Atkins-y pre-debate snack, we were curious to see if any of the candidates had opted for a different strategy: carbo-loading. Alas, no such photo evidence exists. However, here are the carby results of the corn poll at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines Thursday:

(Photo via Getty Images.)

7:53p.m.: How did the candidates spend their pre-debate hours? Reading up on their policy? Practicing their one-liners? Maybe. But Mitt Romney also spent it eating:

(Photo via Associated Press.)

That's a pork chop on a stick, guys. Nothing like a pork chop on a stick in August.

7:40p.m.: Not here tonight? Buddy Roemer, gay activist Fred Karger, and Gary Johnson. (Johnson's absence means there probably won't be much talk about legalizing marijuana this time. Sorry stoners.) They didn't perform well enough in the polls.