And a more expansive frame might lead to more questions that challenge the conservative givens, rather than explore how effective those givens have been, and will be, with the base. Rosen suggests one:

Senator Santorum, you’ve referred in these debates to the “global warming hoax.” Really, Senator? Are you seriously suggesting that the 255 members of the National Academy of Science who recently signed a letter about climate change and the integrity of science have no integrity, that they are engaged in a kind of fraud?

I kind of like it. We might call these the “Really?” questions. Here’s one from me:

Mr. Romney, you have suggested in these debates that the way to deal with 11 million unauthorized immigrants in our country is “self-deportation.” Really, Governor? That translates to policies that make the lives of these people so miserable that they go away, no matter how inhumane or what benefits they provide our economy. Is that realistic?

Another approach might be to ask the candidates to list both the plusses and minuses of particular knotty policies or decisions, to try to see how they get past sound bites:

Mr. Gingrich, can you list the potential outcomes in the Middle East —both the good ones and the bad ones, please—of an attempt by Israel to take out what it believes to be Iran’s bomb-making capability with military force?

I hope you can push these guys past the tailored bites, John, because the answers in the debates do matter. I find myself persuaded by a piece by a political scientist, Jonathan Bernstein, in the current issue of Washington Monthly. Many Americans and many reporters, Bernstein writes, assume that candidates say what is expedient at the moment, particularly in primaries. And that they then move to the center as they face the larger electorate, and deepen and modify positions as they face the nuanced and complex problems a president sees.

But no, he writes, citing a great deal of research and history:

We can be governed now by measures that were adopted years ago, in some cases decades ago, based on what some candidate said in reaction to the particular dynamics of some now-obscure nomination battle.

Or, to be more blunt: presidents usually try to enact the policies they advocate during the campaign. So if you want to know what Mitt Romney or the rest of the Republican crowd would do in 2013 if elected, the best way to find out is to listen to what they are saying right now.

John, I’m just saying. Try to make them think beyond the primaries to the realities of running the country. Because their answers could shape its future.

Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.