Last night was the third Republican debate in just the last 15 days, and one could only guess how the audience would embarrass the party this time.

Two weeks ago, debate attendees cheered executions. Last week, some in the audience backed letting uninsured Americans die. And last night, the audience booed a U.S. Army soldier fighting in Iraq.

YouTube video

For those who can’t watch clips online, the question came via video from Stephen Hill, who said, “In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was, because I’m a gay soldier, and I didn’t want to lose my job. My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”

This led to immediate derision from the audience — because nothing says “support the troops” like booing a U.S. Army serviceman currently in Iraq.

For his part, Santorum responded, “I would say, any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.” He added that the administration has given gay and lesbian troops “a special privilege,” which would end under a Santorum presidency. The audience cheered enthusiastically.

Just to clarify, Rick Santorum, a presidential candidate and former two-term U.S. senator, believes the troops should steer clear of “any type of sexual activities.” In other words, Santorum apparently envisions celibacy for all active U.S. military personnel.

I wonder how that would affect recruitment rates?

All joking aside, these debate audiences are quickly becoming a story unto themselves. Generally, debates matter insofar as we learn something about the candidates. And to be sure, the realization that one of these nine Republicans stands a reasonably good chance of becoming the leader of the free world in about 17 months is more than a little frightening.

But this month, what we’re learning about the audiences seems nearly as important, and every bit as disconcerting. There’s just an element of callousness — of ugliness — to Republican politics in 2011. When deaths are applauded and troops are booed, it’s hard to escape the fact that the party appears to have gone badly off the rails.

Paul Begala added, “As happened in previous debates, the audience in the Fox News/Google debate stole the show — and shocked the conscience. When a gay soldier asked a question, the audience booed. They booed a man who is risking his life for their freedom. Rarely have I seen a more unpatriotic public display…. I may start a betting pool on what the Republicans will boo in the next debate: puppies? Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan’s puppies?”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.