–2 minutes. The debate hasn’t started yet, but the crowd is already restless. A mutiny is afoot. CNN may host this thing, but can CNN’s John King control it? “Let’s do the pledge,” shouts out someone in the audience, and then it happens, a spontaneous eruption of patriotism. The candidates hold their hearts onstage. This bodes well for America but poorly for the debate’s orchestrators. Note to cable producers: If you want to calm the GOP rabble in the future, plan for pre-broadcast patriotic odes.
0 minutes. Luckily the crowd seems to have calmed as King steps before seven candidates and gives his introduction, promising a debate “different than any presidential debate you’ve ever seen.” Really? Why? He says there will be questions from remote locations around New Hampshire. This has been done before, but in presidential politics no one lingers on facts. So everyone is excited as they prepare for something different.
1 minute. King says there will be no opening statements, but rather “one short sentence” from each candidate. In other words, there will be opening statements.
2 minutes. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum goes first with four sentences. “Karen and I are the parents of seven children,” he says of his wife at the end. Impressive. But Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann goes next, and she has Santorum beat: nine sentences, five children and, as a coup de grâce, the statement, “We are the proud foster parents of 23 great children.” There is no wide shot of Santorum to see his reaction. But he just got schooled.
3 minutes. Newt Gingrich won’t play the children-counting game, opting for two sentences and a zinger instead: “We need a new President to end the Obama depression,” he says. As the audience takes in the gravity of that phrase, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney quickly gets the debate back on track: six sentences, five sons, five daughters-in-law and 16 grandkids. He also tries for a bit of self-deprecation. “Hopefully I’ll get it right this year,” Romney says of the 2012 election season. This is candidate code for “I may have been a tool in 2008, but it’s O.K. to like me now.” As the audience tries to calculate whether Romney’s grandkid-to-daughter-in-law ratio trumps Bachmann’s biological-to-foster-child ratio, Texas Representative Ron Paul drops an atom bomb: “I delivered babies for a living and delivered 4,000 babies.” How can anyone compete with this? Game. Set. Match. The debate might as well end right here.
4 minutes. But it doesn’t. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, always making the most of nothing in particular, does his six-sentence best. “My wife Mary and I have been married for 23 years. I’m the father of two beautiful daughters, Anna and Mara. I’m a neighbor,” he says. Well, he has the neighbor thing going for him. Former pizza baron Herman Cain rounds out the group. In his five-sentence opening,
he fails to give his own offspring count he says he is a father of two and a grandfather of three, and then adds, “It’s not about us. It’s about those grandkids.”
5 minutes. Now that it has been established that no one is following the rules, King lays out the rules. CNN has coated St. Anselm College with massive swirling, high-tech video screens and lighting rigs, making the place look like the inside of a patriotic flying saucer. Nonetheless, King says this debate will have “no bells, no whistles.” He says the candidates will be on the honor system. That, and he will try to interrupt them if they continue to break the rules by going off topic or talking for more than 30 seconds at a time.
6 minutes. The first question, asked by one of the aforementioned remote locals, is essentially, What’s your plan for jobs? Cain goes first, with a promising metaphor that quickly derails. “This economy is stalled,” he says. “It’s like a train on the tracks with no engine. And the Administration has simply been putting all of this money in the caboose. We need an engine called the private sector … This is the only way we’re going to get this economy moving, and that’s to put the right fuel in the engine, which is the private sector.” So the private sector is both a missing engine and the fuel that powers the engine. Or something like that.
7 minutes. King follows up by asking Santorum to attack Pawlenty’s claim that he can get the country’s economy to grow by 5% per year for many years, which no serious economist thinks is possible. Santorum declines, and talks about Obamacare.
8 minutes. Pawlenty says President Obama is a “declinist,” which interestingly enough became a word in 1988, according to Merriam-Webster, right before a few years of U.S. decline. But Pawlenty is an optimist. “This idea that we can’t have 5% growth in America is hogwash. It’s a defeatist attitude,” he says. In other words, he calls out anyone who calls his hogwash “hogwash” for being full of “hogwash,” which is a strategy familiar to those who remember saying, “I know you are, but what am I?,” on the playground.
9 minutes. Romney gets to speak, and says, “Tim has the right instincts.” Then he launches into a stump speech about all the ways Obama has failed. He goes on for too long, and King tries to cut him off, but Romney says, “This is an important topic,” and perseveres by saying he has traveled around the world to learn that “President Obama has done it wrong.”
10 to 13 minutes. Everyone else gets a chance to talk jobs. Gingrich says the key to creating jobs is to undo the regulation of Wall Street. Bachmann blows by the whole jobs question to announce she is running for President, which everyone already knew. And Paul says the U.S. could have “10% or 15% growth, or whatever,” if you just changed pretty much everything about U.S. monetary policy.
14 to 19 minutes. Time to talk about Obama’s health care reform. Pawlenty painfully avoids repeating his neologism, which he debuted a day earlier, that the President’s reform should be called ObamneyCare. “I just cited President Obama’s own words,” Pawlenty says, but weakly, since Obama never said “ObamneyCare.” But Pawlenty clearly doesn’t want to engage Romney, who weighs in with his talking points, saying his plan was different than Obama’s and that he would repeal it anyway if elected. Gingrich, as is his habit, says he wants to take the conversation to “a different level,” which in this case means talking about getting more Republicans elected to the Senate.
20 to 25 minutes. A question about the Tea Party. The response: everyone onstage likes the Tea Party. Even King likes the Tea Party. He takes the opportunity to plug an upcoming Tea Party debate on CNN.
26 to 29 minutes. A question about manufacturing policy. Paul says the answer is changing monetary policy. Pawlenty says he grew up in a meatpacking town and that Obamacare is bad. Bachmann says she would lower the corporate tax rate and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. Santorum says he comes from the Steel Valley and that he would cut the capital gains tax.
30 to 33 minutes. A question about unions and whether New Hampshire should be a right-to-work state. The candidates support the right to work, but not so much the unions. The crowd offers its first applause. King says he will cut to a commercial, but first he must ask Santorum to choose between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. Really, this happens. Santorum says he has no idea. Then he says Leno. After some requisite chatter about how socially networked CNN has become and how viewers can photograph the television screen with their smart phones, King mercifully cuts away. This debate will last 120 minutes. It has barely begun.
37 minutes. We’re back. King asks Bachmann another binary-choice question: Elvis or Johnny Cash? (Inexplicably, there is no mention of the Beatles.) Bachmann says both, and admits to having an Elvis Christmas album on her iPod, which calls into question her commitment to Elvis.
38 to 50 minutes. Should the government assist private enterprise? Paul says no. Cain says he supported the TARP bailout, until he no longer did. Then he says, “I don’t believe in this concept of too big to fail,” which makes his initial support of TARP highly questionable. Romney talks about the auto bailout. Gingrich and Pawlenty both talk about NASA, saying it’s a good idea that could be done better. Romney tries to launch into his “Obama sucks” stump speech on mortgages. Some people talk about food regulation and FEMA.
51 minutes. Finally, another commercial break approaches. King asks Gingrich to choose between American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. “American Idol,” says Gingrich, without hesitation. Perhaps the Greece vacation has paid off. Mind as sharp as a tack. King talks about Facebook and Twitter, then cuts away.
53 to 54 minutes. We’re back. There is breaking news. “We’ve become, we are told, a trending topic on Twitter,” announces King, before forcing a mystified Paul to choose between a BlackBerry and an iPhone. Paul chooses a BlackBerry. But his face is the face of a man who has delivered 4,000 babies and still not seen it all.
55 to 65 minutes. Questions about Medicare, Social Security and the debt limit. Gingrich doubles down on his criticism of the Paul Ryan budget plan, which led to the collapse of his campaign operation. “If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea,” he says. Oof. Somewhere, his former staff are buying themselves another round.
66 to 72 minutes. Questions about church and state, with standard answers. Cain spends a couple of minutes struggling to describe how he would handle hiring Muslims in his Administration, by treating them fairly but with more suspicion. Gingrich agrees that Muslims deserve higher scrutiny, like communists or Nazis. “We have got to have the guts to stand up and say no,” he says. Another round for his former staff.
73 minutes. King asks Cain: Deep dish or thin crust? “Deep dish,” says Cain. This permits another cut to a commercial.
77 minutes. Romney must choose between spicy and mild. He chooses spicy. Then Romney gives the score in the Game 6 matchup between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks. Since the Bruins are winning, and are not Canadian, everyone cheers.
78 to 82 minutes. Questions about homosexuality. Predictable answers, though there is division on whether to actively seek a repeal of the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
83 to 87 minutes. Questions about abortion. Everyone is pro-life, and no one makes any fuss about Romney’s past support for choice, despite heavy baiting by King.
88 to 93 minutes. Questions about immigration. Cain, who is for the Constitution except when he is not, says he is against birthright citizenship. Paul says, “We should think about protecting our borders, rather than the borders between Iraq and Afghanistan.” Even though there are no borders between Iraq and Afghanistan, the crowd applauds.
94 to 98 minutes. Two hours is just too long for a debate. After questions about ethanol and eminent domain, which yield little, Pawlenty is asked, Coke or Pepsi? He says Coke, which takes us to another commercial after another gratuitous mention of Twitter by King.
102 minutes. A retired Navy man with three sons in service asks the candidates if it is time to start withdrawing from Afghanistan. The question goes to Romney, who has publicly admitted that one of the reasons he lost in 2008 was that the campaign swung on national security, not the economy. This is his big chance. “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves,” Romney says. As he says “Taliban military,” the camera cuts to someone in the audience in military dress who winces. Romney corrects his mistake, but the deed is done. To rub it in, Paul follows Romney by saying, “I wouldn’t wait for my generals. I’m the Commander in Chief.”
103 to 110 minutes. Various candidates criticize Obama for his engagement in Libya in various ways. Which leads King to start talking about Facebook and Twitter again, which means — you guessed it — another break.
115 minutes. We’re back. How time flies. Only five minutes left. So King brings up Sarah Palin, asking a question so baroque and genius in its construction that it throws Pawlenty off guard for a moment. “If you win the nomination, you’ll have to make the choice that a nominee makes, and that is picking a running mate. Governor Pawlenty to you, look back on 2008 and the process. President Obama made a pick. Senator McCain made a pick. Who made the best choice?” Pawlenty hesitates, and then recovers. He says Vice President Joe Biden makes horrible decisions and that Palin is wonderful.
117 minutes. Romney, who is apparently still spinning from his Taliban flub, butts in to say that Obama is terrible in a number of ways. It’s as if he were reading from a teleprompter. “We’ve had Presidents in the past that had bad foreign policies. This is the first time we’ve had a President that doesn’t have a foreign policy,” he says. This feels a bit like a non sequitur, but at least Romney is back on message. He is followed by other candidates who return to the question of a running mate, without answering whom they would choose.
118 to 120 minutes. King asks everyone what they have learned tonight. Bachmann says she has learned about the “goodness of the American people.” Santorum says, “We have a great field of candidates.” Pawlenty says, “I learned that the Boston Bruins have more heart than the Vancouver Canucks.” This is funny, but not entirely satisfying. Luckily, Cain gets the last word, and he brings it all back home. “It’s not about us,” he says. “It’s about the children and the grandchildren.”
121 minutes. King closes the show with no mention of Facebook or Twitter.