-1 minutes. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer amps up the crowd while standing on an empty stage in Tampa, Fla. “All of us will always remember this night,” he says. “Stand by. We are about to begin. The whole world will be watching.” This last part is an overstatement. This fifth Republican presidential debate is going head-to-head with the season premier of Monday Night Football, a game between the Patriots and the Dolphins in nearby Miami. But that is nothing compared to the other live television event, the Miss Universe pageant, which is set to begin in an hour.
0 minutes. Instead of starting with the debate, CNN cuts away to a fancy montage of the eight candidates, giving each a nickname. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is called “The Firebrand.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has held elected office since 1985, is called “The Newcomer.” Ominous military music plays as a voice over builds the tension. “Eight candidates,” he says. “One stage.” It’s still not football.
3 minutes. To deal with this fact, Blitzer brags about the transmission of the debate to military bases in 175 countries and Navy ships at sea. Then he explains a complex system for asking the candidates questions, including satellite feeds from three watch parties, Twitter, Facebook and prepositioned microphones in the audience.
4 minutes. There are still no candidates on stage, so Blitzer invites them out, one-by-one. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum walks gingerly, trying his best Miss Universe wave. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich follows with a more confident outstretched arm. Texas Rep. Ron Paul juts his arm out once and retracts, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry who gives a sharp military salute to Blitzer, and shakes the hands of the other candidates.
(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)
5 minutes. No wave from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, though he does manage a geeky “Hi guys” and shakes Perry’s hand. Bachmann is glowing as she comes out, and kisses Romney’s cheek. Businessman Herman Cain is next, followed by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who struggles to get Cain’s attention, so he can have someone’s hand to shake, which kind of sums up Huntsman’s entire campaign so far.
6 minutes. Still trying to live down the fact that this is not a sporting event or an international bikini contest, Blitzer introduces someone to sing the national anthem. We are six minutes into the debate, and still no debate. This may be a good thing.
9 minutes. Blitzer asks the candidates to briefly introduce themselves. Huntsman says the country is divided and vows to move it forward. Cain calls himself a non-politician, which is certainly true. Bachmann says “Tea Party” a couple of times, adding that she wants to repeal Dodd-Frank, a law that is considerably less well known than Patriots QB Tom Brady. Romney talks twice about making a “brighter” future. Perry says he wants to get “America working again.” Paul praises liberty. Gingrich talks about the “9/12 spirit.” Santorum says he won two elections in a Democratic-leaning state, without mentioning the third election he lost.
13 minutes. The debate finally begins. Bachmann, who didn’t speak for the first 14 minutes of the last debate, is asked how Social Security and Medicare can be changed without enraging voters. Bachmann says current beneficiaries must be told that they will not be affected. Then she accuses President Obama of stealing $500 billion from Medicare to pay for ObamaCare, and says she has “the core of conviction to be able to make the changes that senior citizens can count on.” Not clear what that means, exactly.
15 minutes. Everyone knows that this Social Security question is really all about Perry, who called the program a “Ponzi scheme” in the last debate, and therefore gets the next question. He has his answer prepared, saying he wants to tell the truth about the program and that current beneficiaries are “slam-dunk guaranteed” to get their promised benefits. “Slam dunk” has been an awkward phrase in national politics ever since CIA director George Tenet used it to describe the certainty of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But no one on stage seems to mind.
16 minutes. Romney gets a chance to attack Perry, which is where this was all leading anyway. “The real question is does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states or is he going to retreat from that view?” Romney baits his rival.
18 minutes. Perry tries to deflect. “If what you’re trying to say is that back in the ’30s and the ’40s that the federal government made all the right decision, I disagree with you,” he says. But he won’t get off so easy. “The question is,” Romney repeats, “Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from that?” This is all kind of exciting. Romney, who hates talking to journalists, is suddenly playing the journalist. Perry looks uncomfortable.
19 minutes. “I think we ought to have that conversation,” says Perry, weakly. “We’re having that right now, governor. We’re running for president,” says Romney. Kapow. They go back and forth a bit more. Perry doesn’t answer the question, but says he wants a “legitimate conversation.” Romney says Perry “scared seniors” by using the phrase “Ponzi scheme.” This gets applause. Perry says that Romney once called the Social Security program “criminal.” Romney explains that what he considered criminal was Congress’s use of the Social Security trust fund for other purposes.
(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)
20 minutes. Blitzer regains control, throws the floor to Paul, who declines to use the phrase “Ponzi scheme” but does say Social Security is “broke.”
21 minutes. Cain says, “I don’t care what you call it. It’s broken,” which is still calling it something.
22 minutes. Huntsman gets a chance, and promptly drops a reference to the rock band Nirvana into his tenacious quest for more attention. “You’ve got Governor Romney, who called it a fraud in his book No Apology,” Huntsman says. “I don’t know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not. And then you’ve got Governor Perry, who is calling this a Ponzi scheme.” Some giggles from the audience, but no response on stage.
23 minutes. Gingrich gets his turn, and does what he likes to do best, question the motivations and/or intelligence of the questioner. “I’m not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day,” Gingrich says. When the crowd erupts into a extended applause, Gingrich complains, “This is eating into my time.” Odd strategy to win the audience over.
24 minutes. Santorum wants a piece and gets it. He says he mentioned a need to fix Social Security in his first Senate race in 1994. “And I still won the election,” he adds. Still no mention of the last one he lost.
26 minutes. New question, sort of. “How do you protect seniors, balance the budget?” Blitzer asks Gingrich, who immediately questions the premise of the question. “But that’s just a Washington mythology,” Gingrich says, before plugging a website, StrongAmericaNow.org, and a book he wrote, “Stop Paying the Crooks.” Gingrich says his plan is to “balance the budget by stop (sic) paying the crooks, not by cheating honest Americans.” The poor grammar is probably intentional, since it allows him another book plug.
28 minutes. A round of questions about the 2003 Prescription Drug Benefit, a massive, unpaid-for entitlement program that most Republicans supported at the time. Santorum says he would keep it and pay for it, but he doesn’t say how.
29 minutes. Perry says he would keep it, and goes on to talk about the need to eliminate the federal deficit. He draws no logical connection between these two conflicting statements.
30 minutes. Romney says he would keep it too, but he would reform Medicare and Medicaid for future beneficiaries. Then he repeats some of his stump speech.
31 minutes. Paul says he was always against it, but that he would cut the Department of Education, the funds for “overseas wars,” and the Department of Energy before going after the drug benefit. Paul does not appear to be playing to the navy ship audience.
32 minutes. Bachmann doesn’t say one way or another whether she would cut the drug benefit. Instead she says we need more “personal responsibility.” “And we can’t be ashamed of that,” she adds. It is a crushing rhetorical blow against those ashamed of personal responsibility.
33 minutes. With that, Blitzer takes the first commercial break. Those viewers who remain are now free to discover that the Patriots are leading the Dolphins 14 to 7, running a no-huddle, shotgun offense at the end of the first half.
36 minutes. We’re back. The question is what should we do to get the economy going again. Huntsman trumpets his economic plan, after empathizing with those who have been “economically shipwrecked.” This includes regulatory and tax reform, and energy independence, none of which distinguish him in any way from anybody else on stage.
39 minutes. Perry is asked about President Obama’s latest stimulus, which is composed mainly of tax cuts. “He’s going to pay for them all with raising your taxes,” says Perry. “That is the issue.” Then Perry says that the 2009 stimulus “created zero jobs,” which is false, and that the 2011 stimulus, which is about half as large, will create “half of zero jobs.” The crowd laughs. Then Perry says his plan is to lower the regulatory climate and cut taxes. Presumably Perry’s tax cuts are totally different from Obama’s tax cuts, which Perry claims are really tax increases.
40 minutes. Blitzer points out that President Obama’s proposed tax cuts, even if they were not paid for, would not be so different from George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which were not paid for. Bachmann pulls a Gingrich and rejects the logic of the question. She says the deficit went “up and up” because of spending.
42 minutes. Cain keeps the streak of non-sequiturs going by speaking of his 9-9-9 plan, which would radically restructure the U.S. tax code, so that income, corporate and federal sales taxes were at 9%. “Now I’ve been told by some people, well, you can’t get that done,” Cain says. “I say why? Well, because you don’t know how Washington works. Yes, I do. It doesn’t.” This is funny but it does not exactly resolve the can’t-get-it-done problem.
43 minutes. Blitzer gets the debate back on track by instructing Romney to get back into a fight with Perry. “Does Gov. Perry deserve any credit for all those jobs that were created in Texas?” Blitzer asks. “Oh sure,” says Romney. “Go ahead and tell him how much credit he deserves,” Blitzer urges. Romney goes on to say that Perry enjoyed the governing equivalent of four Aces in his poker hand by living in Texas: “zero income tax, low regulation, right to work state, oil in the ground and a Republican legislature.” That’s five things, but never mind.
45 minutes. Perry has a good comeback. “Well, I was going to say Mitt you were doing pretty good until you got to talking poker,” he says, though he could have just as easily questioned Romney’s ability to count to four.
46 minutes. Paul, a Texas resident, says he doesn’t much like Gov. Perry’s policies. “My taxes have gone up. Our taxes have doubled since he’s been in office. Our spending has gone up double. Our debt has gone up nearly triple,” Paul says. Then Paul says we need to cut spending, starting with the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which cost about $1 billion, money that has mostly already been spent. “That’s the easy place to cut,” Paul says. “That’s where we should be cutting.”
47 minutes. Perry defends his record in Texas again.
48 minutes. Gingrich ignores another question to say that the nation created more jobs when he was Speaker of the House than when the governors on the stage were governors. This is an awkward thing to take credit for, since Democrat Bill Clinton was President, and Clinton raised taxes before the mid-1990s economic boom. So Gingrich adds, “Now, I don’t claim credit for that because it was done by investors.” Score one for investors.
51 minutes. Hunstman tries one more time to get a rise out of Romney or Perry. “I know that everything’s bigger in Texas, and Rick likes to talk that way,” Huntsman says. “And I know all the smart people reside in Massachusetts. But let me just tell you, Utah, the great state of Utah, was number one in job creation.” Perry laughs at the line about his talk being Texas-sized, which is progress for Huntsman.
52 minutes. Second commercial break. In Miami, the third quarter is starting. Eight minutes until Miss Universe begins.
55 minutes. We are back, and the candidates seem extra aware of the competitive pressures they have in holding audience share. Santorum starts out with a zinger aimed at Obama. “Some people say that Barack Obama’s economy is a disaster. My feeling is it would have to make a dramatic improvement just to be a disaster,” he says, which causes Bachmann to laugh out loud, since that is exactly the kind of thing she would have loved to say.
57 minutes. Bachmann gets a chance to top Santorum. “The Federal Reserve has a lot to answer for, and that’s why it’s important that they’re not only audited, but they have got be shrunk back down to such a tight leash that they’re going to squeak,” she says. It’s quite an image when you think about it. What kind of a creature squeaks on a leash?
58 minutes. But all these valiant efforts are for naught. How can they compete? In Miami, Tom Brady has thrown an interception, which allows the Dolphins to score. The game is now tied 14 to 14. The viewing audience has a choice between this game, or Romney giving his opinion on the Federal Reserve. “The Federal Reserve has a responsibility to preserve the value of our currency to have a strong American currency, such that investors and people who are thinking about bringing enterprises to this country have confidence in the future of America and in our currency,” he says.
60 minutes. Just as Miss Universe begins its live broadcast from Sao Paulo, Brazil, Huntsman gets a question about tax policy. He answers it by reverting to his stump speech, saying nothing new.
63 minutes. Gingrich gets a question about oil company tax breaks and decides to answer a question about General Electric paying no taxes, with the help of Obama’s green energy tax breaks. Blitzer follows by asking Gingrich if he would favor closing those loopholes. Gingrich backs down. “Look, I’m cheerfully opposed to raising taxes,” he says. “This government — we have a problem of overspending. We don’t have a problem of undertaxing.” Maybe he is onto something with the “cheerful” part. What if all the candidates used that word in their answers?
65 minutes. Romney is asked if he would support a national sales tax. He says it’s an interesting idea, but it would effectively raise taxes on middle income Americans while providing the rich a tax break. “And the people who have been hurt most by the Obama-economy are the middle class,” he adds. So, no.
68 minutes. After a question about executive orders that is mostly handled by Paul, the talk turns to injecting teenage girls with a vaccine to prevent a sexually-transmitted disease that causes cancer. Perry defends his effort to standardize this practice in Texas, even though he says he regrets doing it by executive order. Bachmann calls it “flat out wrong.” Perry notes that his plan allowed parents to opt out. Bachmann suggests that the reason Perry pushed the vaccines was because a former Perry staffer worked for the drug company selling the vaccine, which was also a campaign donor. “I raise about $30 million,” Perry responds, noting a single donation from the drug firm Merck. “And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
71 minutes. Santorum gets to pile on, by making the whole discussion more graphic. He notes that the purpose of vaccines at schools is to protect children against passing diseases at schools. “Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their school by way of their curriculum, then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government,” he says. This icky reference to sex with “little girls” is made more so by the fact that the sentence also includes the phrase “force and compulsion.”
75 minutes. Now it is time to rehash the old debates about Mitt Romney’s efforts to reform health care in Massachusetts. Nothing new is said. But as Romney defends himself, the Miss Universe pageant really kicks into high gear. Miss France, Miss Kosovo, Miss Columbia and Miss China all move on to the next round. And to add insult to injury, the Patriots score another touchdown. It’s now 21 to 14. Good game.
76 minutes. Perry, once again, attacks Romney’s health care efforts. Miss Angola and Miss Australia move on to the next round.
77 minutes. Perry again defends himself. Miss Netherlands is moving on.
78 minutes. Blitzer asks Paul who should pay to take care of a 30-year-old man who goes into a coma without health insurance. “What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul says. That would be tough to do in a coma. Miss Ukraine. Miss Panama. Miss Costa Rica. Miss Philippines — they are moving on.
80 minutes. Bachmann really wants in on this conversation. She pulls a Huntsman and tries a dual attack on Romney and Perry for being wishy-washy on repealing ObamaCare. “If you believe that states can have it and that it’s constitutional, you’re not committed,” she says. “If you’ve implemented this in your state, you’re not committed. I’m committed.”
82 minutes. Cut to commercial. Miss Universe has a montage of all the ladies shopping and dancing in various locals around Brazil. The Dolphins just kicked a field goal, making it 21 to 17. 3:36 left in the third quarter. Really good game.
85 minutes. We’re back. Wait. No we’re not. Blitzer says something about Twitter and Facebook and then cuts to commercial again.
87 minutes. We’re back for real this time. Immigration time, which is the least interesting time, since the answers are always the same. Secure. The. Borders. First. Perry says he does not support a physical wall, but a huge increase in border patrols and aerial surveillance.
90 minutes. After lots of predictable answers, Santorum makes it exciting by attacking Perry for providing instate tuition assistance to illegal immigrants in Texas. Perry defends his actions, demonstrating why Democrats would not have a lock on the Latino vote if he is the nominee. “The bottom line is it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is,” Perry says. “That is the American way. No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you. And that’s what we’ve done in the state of Texas. And I’m proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, you go be on the government dole.” As he answers, the crowd boos.
91 minutes. Bachmann demonstrates why her nomination would basically give Democrats a lock on the Latino vote. “I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally,” she says. “That is not the American way.”
92 minutes. Perry says though he supported in state tuition for illegal immigrants, he does not support the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants enrolled in school.
93 minutes. Huntsman tries again. “Let me say for Rick to say that you can’t secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment,” he says. But even as he makes this vicious, below-the-belt attack, he half smiles, as if he is not sure whether he is kidding or serious. The crowd boos, and Perry laughs. He still doesn’t care what Huntsman says.
95 minutes. Ten seconds left in the third quarter, and the Patriots score another touchdown. At 28 to 17, the game is slipping away.
98 minutes. Just as Cain gets a question about energy independence, the swimsuit competition is starting. A bunch of fit, shirtless men are doing flips on the stage. “I would put together a regulatory reduction commission for every agency starting with the EPA,” Cain says. Really, not even close.
99 minutes. Gingrich starts talking about the threat of nuclear attacks, but the fourth quarter is beginning, and Miss France has just walked out in a bikini.
100 minutes. Paul gets into an argument with Santorum about whether U.S. policy precipitated the September 11 attacks. Santorum is indignant, and the crowd is on his side. Paul says that Americans should imagine how they would react if China was “occupying” our land the way the U.S. military was stationed in the Middle East. As he mentions China, Miss China walks onto the stage in her bikini.
104 minutes. Huntsman says, “We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan nation-building at a time when this nation needs to be built.”
105 minutes. Perry says, “I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it’s also really important for us to continue to have a presence there.” Finally, the recognition Huntsman has been seeking.
106 minutes. Another commercial break. Miss Venezuela comes out, ending the swimsuit strut. Score is unchanged in Miami.
109 minutes. We are back for the final segment. The candidates are each asked how they would physically change the White House. Santorum says he will add bedrooms to house his seven kids. Gingrich says he will kick out all the White House czars “creating a lot more space,” which is false since czars do not have West Wing offices. Paul will bring classes on Austrian economics “to teach the people.” Perry says, “I’m going to bring the most beautiful, most thoughtful, incredible first lady that this country’s ever seen, Anita.” Nice. Romney will bring a bust of Winston Churchill. Bachmann will bring the nation’s founding documents. Cain says, “I would bring a sense of humor to the White House, because America’s too uptight.” Unclear if this makes him the butt of the joke. Huntsman will bring his motorcycles.
112 minutes. “Please give a hand to our candidates,” says Blitzer to those in the viewing audience who have not yet changed the channel. With 11:02 left in the game, the Patriots have scored another field goal and are pulling away. On the stage in Sao Paulo, the top ten ladies are about to be revealed.