Not since “The Sopranos” ended in 2007 has there been a TV series with a finale as inconclusive as that of the 2011-2012 Republican presidential debates. Does Mitt get whacked or what?

Last week’s debate in Mesa, Ariz., was the 20th in the series. Sure, there’s another one scheduled in Oregon on March 19. But it could be canceled depending on what happens between Super Tuesday, March 6, and St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Over those 12 days, 17 states will choose delegates. By the time Illinois primary voters go to the polls on March 20, the race could be all but over.

Or not. If the debates proved anything, it’s that these days the bar for being considered a serious Republican presidential candidate is very low.

There are no Abraham Lincolns in the Party of Lincoln, nor any Theodore Roosevelts. The term “moderate Republican” is an oxymoron now. There aren’t even Ronald Reagans or Bob Doles or George H.W. Bushes, reality-based conservatives.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was that kind of Republican before the debate series opened last spring. He knows full well that 21st century problems cannot be solved with simplistic 19th century solutions. But as his opponents attacked him relentlessly in debate after debate, he moved closer to the “severely conservative” edge of reality.

“Edge of Reality” would have been a good title for this series.

The edge loomed in the sixth debate, on Sept. 12, in Tampa, Fla., when a few people in the audience cheered the proposition that a hypothetical coma patient should be allowed to die if he couldn’t pay for his own care. None of the eight candidates endorsed that idea, but neither did any step forward to say it was out of bounds.

The Anybody But Mitt campaign was destined to end in a three-corner fight among Romney, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and whomever the party’s right wing could coalesce around.

One by one, candidates tried to seize the third corner. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota had a brief moment, but she couldn’t counter the sudden emergence of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose “Oops” moment in the 10th debate became an instant classic. Herman Cain had his “9-9-9” 15 minutes, but then his past caught up with him.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who at least sounded in the debates as if he knew what he was talking about, made a surge. But while Gingrich juggled his considerable baggage, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania came surging from back in the field, like a culture-warrior Seabiscuit. Timing is everything.

Romney, who spent nine months apologizing for past thoughtfulness, now is attacking Santorum for apostasy (voting for Republican President George W. Bush’s education reforms). Gingrich is promising $2.50-a-gallon gasoline, which could help make it cheaper to establish that colony on the moon he talked about.

This is what nine months and 20 debates has wrought: Three candidates trying to out-pander and out-promise one another and one, Paul, whose support for the gold standard makes it sound as if he’s running against William Jennings Bryan.

Presidential debates present the candidates without media or advertising filters. If this series had gone on much longer, everyone would have been eliminated. They would have had to start from scratch. Which is not a bad idea.

Editorial by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch distributed by MCT Information Services

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