Nyuck, nyuck -- GOP candidates play for laughs, don't score any comedy bookings

Feb. 22, 2012: Rick Santorum, left, Mitt Romney, center, and Newt Gingrich participate in a debate in Mesa, Ariz. Ron Paul, not shown, also participated.

Feb. 22, 2012: Rick Santorum, left, Mitt Romney, center, and Newt Gingrich participate in a debate in Mesa, Ariz. Ron Paul, not shown, also participated.  (AP)

If one were scoring the laugh track to Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, it would be an exercise in restraint. The light-hearted moments, while a relief, were sparse and awkward. 

The candidates, at perhaps their last on-stage duel of the campaign, were able to pull off some zingers, though no one is winning a spot to appear at the late-night Laugh Shack downtown.

Newt Gingrich showed his penchant for strenuous sentence structure. Rick Santorum, with his insults that aren't really meant to be insults, looked surprise with each amusement. Ron Paul was just his perpetual Ron Paul-iness. 

Here's a review of the lines that struck a funny bone at Wednesday's debate. 

-- Ron Paul

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Paul, rarely one to back down from an attack, scored the night's first laugh when he was asked why his campaign is running an ad that labels Rick Santorum a fake conservative. 

"Because he's a fake," Paul replied. 

The audience laughed and booed -- as is customary when a politically divided audience tries to determine whether something is funny. 

"I'm real, John. I'm real," Santorum assured the moderator. 

Paul continued to draw a reaction from the crowd later on with his blanket criticisms of Congress. In his declarative way, he said he understood why there'd be misrepresentation over the issue of earmarks, which he has sought for his district.

"You know, there's reason for the confusion, because... because it's all Congress's fault. They're all messed up and they don't know what they're doing in Congress is the real reason," he said.

-- Newt Gingrich

Gingrich by far achieved the most well-delivered cutesie lines of the evening. 

The most memorable was probably when each candidate was asked to describe himself in a word. 

"Cheerful," the former speaker quipped -- just weeks after telling off the same moderator on national television in an explosive moment which arguably helped him win South Carolina. 

Paul could be heard belting out an incredulous laugh. 

At least Gingrich used an adjective. Santorum's description, "courage," didn't exactly work in a sentence. 

Gingrich also amused the crowd while dressing down Mitt Romney for making a stink over earmarks even though his team sought them when he oversaw the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. 

"I think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got. I just think it's, kind of, silly for you to then turn around and run an ad attacking somebody else for getting what you got and then claiming what you got wasn't what they got because what you got was right and what they got was wrong," Gingrich said. 

Paul earned laughs immediately afterward, when he declared of Gingrich's statement: "I followed that." 

Finally, Gingrich landed another punch line when challenged over criticism by Texas Gov. Rick Perry that his call to build a wall along the Texas border would just encourage people to buy tall ladders. Gingrich has said he wants two fences to line the border with Mexico.

"He's not wrong," Gingrich said. "They'd have to have two 35-foot ladders because it's a double fence." 

-- Rick Santorum

Santorum's and Romney's laugh lines appeared less intentional. 

Santorum drew laughter after calling Paul one of the "most prolific earmarkers in the Congress," eliciting audience boos as well, and responding to them with, "I'm not criticizing; I'm just saying that's a fact."

Santorum also earned nyucks when he said that he was a leader in trying to deal with Social Security reform while representing a large swath of seniors in his home state. 

"And I can tell you those seniors really cared about Social Security. Why? Because all my rich seniors moved to Florida and Arizona. And what's left in Pennsylvania is folks who relied on Social Security."

-- Mitt Romney

Romney earned a few guffaws when he explained his misgivings over Santorum's claims that he backed Title X family planning funding despite personal opposition to it. 

"Senator, I just saw a YouTube clip of you being interviewed where you said that you personally opposed contraceptives but that you -- you said that you voted for Title X. ... You used that as an argument, saying this is something I did proactively. You didn't say this is something I was opposed to; it wasn't something I would have done. You said this -- you said this in a positive light, 'I voted for Title X.'"

Guess that was one of those "had-to-be-there" moments.