Today could be a big day for Republicans. Or not.

The good news: GOP candidates for the party’s presidential nomination will finally get some direct feedback from voters, in the Iowa straw poll; and another would-be president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, will join the wide-ranging field of contenders.

The bad news: It’s entirely possible, even likely, that the straw poll in Iowa will provide next-to-nothing in the way of clarity for Republicans trying to decide which candidate would be the best choice to challenge President Obama in the 2012 election. And Perry’s entry into the race, while much anticipated and undoubtedly welcomed in some circles, may only serve to further muddle an already muddled contest.

The muddle thickened during and after Thursday night’s debate, held in front of a live audience at Iowa State University in Ames and televised exclusively on Fox News. Featuring eight declared candidates ranging from nominal front-runner Mitt Romney to libertarian rabble-rouser Ron Paul, the debate was encouragingly entertaining but discouragingly unenlightening. All the candidates predictably trashed Obama and just as predictably railed against budget deficits and tax increases.

NO DETAILS

Beyond those tea party-endorsed chestnuts, the debaters were hard-pressed to come up with any detailed proposals or creative solutions to the nation’s problems.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the pack in the category of interesting ideas but did little to propel himself into the first tier of candidates. When Chris Wallace of Fox asked Gingrich about the disastrous start of his campaign — most of his staff and top advisers resigned and fled the scene — Newt grumbled about “gotcha” questions and never addressed the issue: the perception that he lacks the managerial skills to serve as chief executive of the U.S. government.

Romney, meanwhile, continued his sensible, if boring, strategy of playing it safe, wrapping himself in conservative-friendly issues like lower taxes and job creation.

Tea party favorite Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, sparred with her state’s former governor, Tim Pawlenty, about issues no one this side of Minneapolis could give a hoot about.

At one point, Bachmann disappeared from the stage during a commercial break and the moderator had to wait for her to return before resuming the questioning. Nobody asked her where she’d been.

Paul, never one to subscribe to conventional wisdom, came out strongly in favor of allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons. He said it’s perfectly understandable that Iran would want nukes since other countries in the neighborhood are known to have them.

Seriously, folks. This guy wants to be president of the United States. And there are people out there who will vote for him.

As usual, businessman/non-politician Herman Cain served up plainspoken common sense and comic relief, but even he has to know that, at best, he’s campaigning for the chance to be chosen as the eventual nominee’s vice presidential running mate.

Most of these candidates, in fact, seem more like VP material than potential commanders in chief.

Which brings us to Perry.

ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Perry waited a long time to get into the race, teasing his supporters and tormenting potential foes. He had been the unacknowledged 800-pound gorilla in the room, popular with social conservatives and tea party activists but also capable of appealing to mainstream fiscal conservatives and establishment Republicans who prefer a candidate with extensive experience in public office.

Perry has been governor of the Lone Star State since December 2000; he had been lieutenant governor and succeeded George W. Bush in the top job after Bush was elected president.

Perry has made a career of being underestimated and some media wiseguys are already writing him off as too conservative, or maybe just too Texan, to wage a successful campaign.

“Will people really want to vote for another Texas governor, so soon after Bush?” the pundits are asking.

Hard to say. Perry might catch fire and surge to the nomination. He might make a splash, then fade away as the season wears on. Or he might never get his bid off the ground, as happened to senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson when he made a late but highly anticipated bid for the Republican nomination in 2008.

Whatever happens, Perry’s candidacy should generate renewed interest in the Republicans’ presidential race, which can only be good news for the Grand Old Party — and the general public, for that matter.

The act we saw Thursday was already getting stale.