-2 minutes. Most debates start at 8 p.m., but not on Fox News, where that’s Bill O’Reilly’s time slot. At the moment, Bill is talking about “blooters.” “It is a word. You can find it, if you look it up,” Bill says. “Don’t be a blooter.” The word is apparently Scottish slang, and it means something like, “bumbling idiot.” Which is actually an awesomely ballsy way to set up the sixth Republican debate. Bill rocks.
0 minutes. At 9 p.m. exactly, the camera cuts to a riot at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. It’s hard to tell what is going on, but Fox News’ Brett Baier, half private eye, half teddy bear, all anchor, is trying to stay in control as thousands of audience members go nuts behind him. He quickly kicks it to the candidates, already on stage, for introductions.
1 minute. Each candidate gets to wave hello, beauty pageant style. Texas Governor Rick Perry goes first, his fingers pressed together. Ladylike and proper, if he were a lady. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney goes next, a couple quick, efficient shakes of the wrist. Technocrat. Businessman. On message. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann follows, her wrist all over the place in girlish enthusiasm. It goes on. Nine people on stage. Potential blooters, all. But none has said a word.
(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)
2 minutes. Back to everyone’s favorite teddy detective Baier, who explains that this is also a Google debate, and that the doorbell telling candidates to stop talking from the last Fox News debate has been replaced by that GChat tone that tells you there is a new message. This is Google’s way of just messing with the audience, since every time the tone sounds, you think that someone is trying to get in touch with you.
3 minutes. First question goes to Perry, from a small businessman, who wants to know what the candidates would do to get companies hiring again. Perry repeats a bunch of things he has said before about Texas, and then makes a mistake. “And that’s exactly what I’m going bring to Washington when I go there in November — or, excuse me, in January of 2013,” he says. Early jitters, it seems. But something is off. Perry keeps pausing mid-sentence, as if someone put Benadryl in his Sanka.
4 minutes. Follow-up for Perry: “Where is your jobs plan?” Perry doesn’t seem to know. “Well, you will see a more extensive jobs plan. But the fact of the matter is, you look at the state of Texas . . . “ He continues on for a while, before the Benadryl gets the better of him. He wants to say that Texas is the number one state for “relocation,” but can’t seem to find the word. Eventually, he finds it. Not quite a blooter, but barely hanging on.
6 minutes. Romney gets his chance, after Baier asks him a long and complicated question. He ignores the question, and starts listing off his talking points, about how he is a businessman who knows about jobs. All circuits are firing. He lists off four of the 59 parts in his plan to get the economy going before pirouetting to a couple of consecutive sentences that use the phrase “middle class.” This man is a candidate machine. The words come out exactly as he prepared them.
7 minutes. Baier tries to follow by asking Romney, who is really rich, to define what rich means. Romney sees the trap, refuses to answer the question, and then delivers a couple more pre-programmed payoff lines, like “I want people in America to recognize that the future will be brighter for their kids than it was for them.”
8 minutes. Bachmann, doing her perfect imitation of Michele Bachmann, says something that doesn’t make sense, but sounds so simple and good: “You should get to keep every dollar that you earn. That’s your money. That’s not the government’s money. That’s the whole point.” Crowd loves it, even though it would basically mean anarchy, not to mention likely foreign invasions as the U.S. military crumbled. Later she reclaims logic by saying, “Obviously, we have to give money back to the government so that we can run the government.” The contradiction doesn’t matter. She knows her audience.
10 minutes. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum says he wants to pass a law that would outlaw the rights of public employee unions to negotiate wages and benefits. He also knows his audience.
12 minutes. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says that he favors mandating state-run training programs for people receiving unemployment benefits. “People should not get money for doing nothing,” he says, which is a nice thought, though it means he wants to spend more money on a training bureaucracy, or 50 different ones. But let’s not dwell.
13 minutes. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is asked about his support for clean energy subsidies. He says, “We have learned that subsidies don’t work and we can’t afford them.” Then he admits that he still wants subsidies for natural gas. Dangerously close to blooter territory.
15 minutes. Former pizza company boss Herman Cain talks about his 9-9-9 plan, which would change everything about how taxation works in America. Then he attacks Romney for proposing a tax plan that does not totally abandon the current tax code. “That dog won’t hunt,” Cain says to applause.
17 minutes. This allows the Romney Super Candidate-a-tron to spit out a few more perfectly measured soundbites about how he will fight for “middle-income” folk, which is code for him saying he could actually win in a general election battle against Obama, while Cain can’t.
18 minutes. Ron Paul talks about the 10th Amendment, which, for libertarians, is the equivalent of watching the Baywatch opening credits.
19 minutes. Wait a minute. There is a new guy on stage. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. He says things that Paul would say, but sounds like an earnest hairdresser when he speaks. Likable fellow though.
20 minutes. Fox News cuts away to one of its 3,600 smart, blonde anchor ladies. She is introduced as Shannon Bream, and she explains that you too can answer the questions from home by going to a website. One day, decades from now, television historians will look back on all these debates and giggle about how quaint and silly the early attempts to make television interactive once were.
22 minutes. Commercial break. Another thing that Fox News does differently: Take commercial breaks early and often.
25 minutes. We’re back, with a short message from Rick Scott, the hairless governor of Florida. He comes across like a new age alien from Star Trek, the kind that reads your thoughts, directs your dreams and heals your wounds. He says Florida matters a lot for Republicans this year, which is probably true.
26 minutes. Social Security Perry-bashing time. This time Perry preemptively bashes Romney for misrepresenting his plan to allow some state employees to opt out of Social Security. The screen shows Romney’s reaction as Perry speaks. His eyebrows are arched. He looks respectful, ready to pounce.
27 minutes. Pounce he does. Romney says Rick Perry said something different in his last book. “So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,” Romney says. It must be healing for Romney to finally be able to accuse someone else of flip-flopping. Perry smiles, as if to say, “Well played, and I hate you.” They keep going back and forth for a while.
28 minutes. In the middle of a Romney answer, Perry breezily observes, “It’s kind of badminton.” He gently flicks his wrist a couple of times, and smiles, as if someone put something a bit stronger than Benadryl in his Sanka.
29 minutes. The badminton joke does not compute for Romney. He continues to attack, surgically.
30 minutes. Romney is asked if he thinks Obama is a Socialist, like Bachmann. Romneybot 2012 sees the general election trap, and deftly avoids it. “I love this country,” Romney says. “I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I only spent four years as a governor. I didn’t inhale.” This is funny. It seems like an attack on Bill Clinton, who famously did inhale, but it is actually an attack on Perry, who not only has been in government for decades, but appears to have inhaled Benadryl dust.
(MORE: Three Myths About Rick Perry)
32 minutes. Rapid fire with the minor candidates. Huntsman delivers a bit of his stump speech. Cain says he wants to eliminate the EPA and use the Chilean model for Social Security reform. Gingrich once again rejects the premise of a question, and promises a “21st Century Contract With America” next Thursday. He says it will be “more profound” than his last contract with America in 1994. No doubt.
37 minutes. Education time. The candidates all talk about how Obama stinks, and the federal government should get out of education. Perry’s speech seems to be slowing even more. But then he pulls out a zinger. “There is one person on this stage that is for Obama’s Race to the Top and that is Governor Romney. He said so just this last week,” Perry says. “Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top and that is not conservative.”
41 minutes. “Nice try,” says Romneytron, since his motherboard has apparently instructed him to condescend to Perry’s intellectual heft. “We need get the federal government out of education.” But Romney’s programming now starts to falter. Even Deep Blue sometimes loses at chess. Baier asks if Perry said something false about Romney’s record, and Romney has to admit that he does like Race to the Top, which contradicts what he just said about getting the federal government out of education. Romney tries to argue that Obama can be bad, while the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is good. But no one is buying that one.
43 minutes. Bachmann finally gets a chance to mention that she has five biological children and 23 foster children.
46 minutes. Immigration time. Since this is Fox News, the word “illegals” is used a lot. Bachmann demands the border fence. Gingrich does his riff about a national citizenship card managed by MasterCard or American Express.
50 minutes. Romney is asked to attack Perry for giving tuition to undocumented immigrants in Texas. Back on track, the machine kicks into high gear, pointing out that the Texas tuition benefit could amount to $22,000 a year, or “almost $100,000.” “That shouldn’t be allowed,” Romney continues. “It makes no sense at all.” Again, take note of the intellectual condescension. This is looking like a strategy.
52 minutes. Perry begins by talking about his experience securing the border. Then he offers an eloquent defense of his position. “But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry says. “We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.” Perry gets booed. Either Perry is wrong, or there are not a lot of hearts in the audience.
53 minutes. Santorum clearly lacks a heart, because he asks if he can “butt in” to attack Perry. Fox News’ Chris Wallace says “You don’t need to butt in.” But Santorum seems to insist that he butt in. This is the most hilarious part of the debate, since the debate is sponsored by Google and Santorum is trying to butt in. If you don’t understand why, just type “Santorum” into Google. (Disclaimer: Don’t type “Santorum” into Google.)
54 minutes. Some Santorum and Perry back and forth about whether a fence should be built along the entire U.S. border. Suffice it to say, the disagreement is unresolved. Though Santorum butts in a couple more times.
55 minutes. Paul is asked about his contention in the last debate that a border fence could be used to keep Americans from escaping into Mexico. In response, Paul warns of government “data banks.” “Once you have these data banks, the data banks means that everybody is going to be in the data bank,” Paul says. “You say, oh no, the data bank’s there for the illegals. But everybody’s in the data bank.” Blooter. But the crowd applauds.
56 minutes. Back to perky Bream who offers a bunch of web responses to the debate that don’t really mean anything or matter. Cut to commercial.
62 minutes. We’re back, barely half way through. It must be said that few Americans bother to watch these debates. The last one had a bit more than 3 million viewers. The highest rated one had a bit more than 5 million viewers. By contrast, nearly 28 million Americans watched the Two and a Half Men premier. There is a reason for this, and it’s not just that Ashton Kutcher is dreamy. These debates are really hard to endure.
63 minutes. Questions about Israel. The candidates say they really support Israel and Obama does not really support Israel.
65 minutes. Perry correctly pronounces the word Haqqani, but he uses it in a sentence that doesn’t really make much sense. “Yesterday, we found out through Admiral Mullen that Haqqani has been involved with — and that’s the terrorist group directly associated with the Pakistani country. So to have a relationship with India, to make sure that India knows that they are an ally of the United States.” Blame the Benadryl, or whatever.
66 minutes. More foreign policy questions. Santorum establishes himself as a classic George W. Bush hawk. Gingrich pooh-poohs foreign aide as corrupt. Johnson gets confused in a question about Cuba, so Bachmann jumps in to call the country a supporter of terrorists, which gets applause. Huntsman chimes in to get into a pissing match with Santorum. “After 10 years of fighting the war on terror, people are ready to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, Rick,” he says.
75 minutes. Bachmann opines on the separation of church and state, which she once denied as a “myth,” but now confirms, in part.
76 minutes. Santorum gets a video question from a gay soldier serving oversees, who asks if President Santorum would re-institute Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The answer is yes. “Sex is not an issue,” Santorum says. “It is — it should not be an issue. Leave it alone, keep it — keep it to yourself, whether you’re a heterosexual or a homosexual.” Does that mean straight people would hide their marriages too? Probably not.
78 minutes. Paul is asked about abortion. Perry is asked about George W. Bush. Cain is asked about his successful fight against colon and liver cancer, which earns him a touching extended applause from the crowd, that Cain uses to pivot into an attack on Obama’s health care reforms. Huntsman is asked about the implications of repealing those reforms on the young and the sick. No new ground is broken.
86 minutes. The sixth-grade-girl-sexually-transmitted-disease-injection portion of the program begins. Bachmann forgives herself for repeating the false claim that the vaccine Perry tried to mandate in Texas caused mental retardation. Then she attacks Perry, again, not only for trying to mandate the vaccine, but for his ties to Merck, the vaccine-maker, who lobbied him.
87 minutes. Perry finally delivers a perfect answer. “I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with her. She came by my office talked to me about in program.” He looks straight at the camera, and seems to care. But he is misleading everyone. His friendship with Heather Burcham, the woman in question, occurred a month after issuing the executive order to mandate the vaccine. But it’s a nice story.
90 minutes. Romney is asked about Perry’s contention that Massachusetts health care reform was “socialized medicine.” “I don’t think he knows what he was talking about in that– in that regard,” Romney says, again going back to the that-Texan-has-trouble-thinking-about-hard-stuff theme. Which works, because Romney is Deep Blue.
91 minutes. But Perry is ready to pounce on this one. “I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it — was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he’s for ObamaCare, and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and — and– and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”
92 minutes. Romney doesn’t even bother to defend his past flip flops. He just says, “I’m a conservative businessman,” and says he has been consistent since he wrote a book two years ago, while Perry has retreated from positions in the book he wrote last year. “Not an inch, sir,” Perry shoots back, always the cadet.
93 minutes. Another commercial. Please. This. Must. End.
97 minutes. Each candidate gets 30 seconds to say how they are going to turn this country around. They do, mainly by repeating parts of their stump speeches.
99 minutes. Cain mentions his 9-9-9 plan again. In the 99th minute. Cosmic.
104 minutes. Johnson pulls out the night’s biggest zinger: “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.” Everyone goes wild. Even supercomputer Romney laughs. For the record, Rush Limbaugh happened to tell an almost identical joke earlier that day on the radio. But it’s still funny.
105 minutes. Final commercial break. We are close.
106 minutes. We’re back. Everyone is asked to pick a running mate from someone on stage. Johnson chooses Paul. Santorum chooses Gingrich. Gingrich, of course, rejects the validity of the question and won’t answer. Paul won’t choose either, but he is less annoying than Gingrich in his dodge. Perry says he wants to “mate” Cain and Gingrich. “There are a couple of images I’m going to have a hard time getting out of my mind,” jokes Romney, because Republicans are super-straight, and super-straight folks love homoerotic humor. Then Romney refuses to answer the question, saying his data processors would need more time to make such an important decision. Bachmann defers. Cain says Romney or Gingrich. Hunstman says Cain.
114 minutes. We are done. Really, truly, finally, blooter, done.