–6 minutes. At St. Anselm College, ABC News asks former Utah governor Jon Huntsman to take the stage first. Texas Governor Rick Perry peeks from behind the curtain instead, followed by the others. Huntsman is last out. Typical. This is not a good sign. Reality shows end with the big double-episode season finales, so the GOP has scheduled back-to-back debates the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, with a 10-hour delay in the middle. There is a long way to go.
0 minutes. The opening montage sets the scene: “Can anybody overcome former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney?” asks the voice-over. This is the question of the day. “Tonight we put them all to the test.”
2 minutes. But the test is really easy. The first question for Romney: “We just saw 200,000 new jobs created last month, and there are optimists who say this is the signal that this economy is finally turning around. Are you with those optimists?” This is like asking a veterinarian if puppies are cute. “I’m an optimist,” says Romney, before pivoting to his stump speech. Barack Obama is bad, etc.
4 minutes. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is prodded to repeat his claim that the country does not need a manager or CEO like Romney as President. Santorum does, saying he is better because he “managed major pieces of legislation through the House and through the Senate.” Catch that? Santorum is a manager too — for just about the only institution less popular than corporations: Congress. Woo. Yippee.
5 minutes. Romney’s tie is covered with a pattern of fishhooks. Not clear why. But he doesn’t let Santorum snag him. Romney’s response uses the words lead or leadership seven times.
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7 minutes. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich gets a turn to hook Romney. He is asked about a video being hawked by a super PAC supporting him that calls Romney’s business record “a story of greed.” Gingrich won’t attack. He says people should watch the video and read recent coverage critical of Romney in the New York Times. “If it’s factually accurate, it raises questions.” For the first time in 14 debates, Gingrich is not pretending to know more than everyone else. Suspicious.
8 minutes. Romney says that “net-net,” his work at Bain Capital produced more jobs than it destroyed. Definitely a fishing theme here.
10 minutes. Huntsman gets to take the test. Another softball. “Should Republicans worry” about the attacks on Romney’s business record? It’s a perfect setup. But Huntsman can’t swing. He reverts to the passive voice. “Well, it’s part of his record, and therefore, it’s going to be talked about,” Huntsman says before going on about his own “private-sector experience.”
12 minutes. This gives Romney another chance to repeat his stump speech about how he is good, the private sector is good, and Obama is bad. Debate prep must have been simple for Romney. Think Pavlov’s dog. Whatever they say, you just repeat your stump speech. Bell rings, stump speech. Ding-a-ling. Ding-a-ling. Stump speech.
13 minutes. The moderators give up on hooking big fish Romney. They ask Texas Representative Ron Paul to attack Santorum again for being “a corrupt corporate lobbyist, a Washington insider with a record of betrayal,” which Paul has said before and says again. So begins a five-minute spat between the two men, which does not matter.
15 minutes. Santorum is not wearing enough makeup. His forehead is shiny.
17 minutes. Perry is still running for President, and he weighs in with a well-constructed answer about his opposition to Washington and how he is separated from the rest of the field. It is exactly the kind of answer he needed to give 10 debates ago, when huge numbers of people still wanted to believe in him.
20 minutes. Huntsman is asked why he would be a better Commander in Chief than the others on the stage. He says the word gobbledygook. That is the only part of his answer that is memorable. The rest is a bunch of canned lines, like “Leadership matters to the American people.”
21 minutes. Desperate to return to the test, the moderator asks, “Do you want to speak specifically about anybody on the stage?” “They can all speak for themselves,” says Huntsman, who is now apparently running for a Cabinet Secretary post in the Romney Administration.
22 minutes. “Governor Romney?” asks ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Romney accurately points out that this is not really a question. So Sawyer asks him a question. But the question does not matter, because all Romney hears is the bell ringing. “Look,” says Romney, “this is a failed presidency.”
25 minutes. Perry is asked if it matters that he has served in the military while others have not. The answer is basically yes. Then Paul and Gingrich start arguing about whether Gingrich is a “chicken hawk” for never having served. “The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question,” says Gingrich, referring to the Vietnam War. “When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went,” says Paul. “I wasn’t eligible for the draft,” Gingrich responds. Different ages. Different wars. Different rules.
30 minutes. Paul is asked about the old racist newsletter he used to publish. Paul says he didn’t write the newsletter and that he loves Martin Luther King Jr. “He practiced the libertarian principle of peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, as did Rosa Parks,” says Paul. Paul did vote for Martin Luther King Day. (He also voted against it. See here.) His newsletter called it “Hate Whitey Day.”
32 minutes. With that, a commercial break. Remember, this is a double feature. A long way to go. If you pop the popcorn now, it will be stale at the end. So far, Romney’s ding-a-ling strategy is dominant.
38 minutes. Clearly desperate, moderator George Stephanopoulos swings for the fences. He asks Romney if the Supreme Court should be able to ban adults from using contraception, given Romney’s refusal to embrace the right to privacy that outlaws bans on abortions. It’s a head scratcher, dating to a court case you probably never heard about. Romney realizes that this is not just any ringing bell. So he refuses to answer. “George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising,” he says. Then Romney utters one of the coolest quotes from any of the debates. “Contraception. It’s working just fine. Just leave it alone.” Put it in a position paper. Enshrine it in the party platform. It even fits on a bumper sticker.
43 minutes. Working contraception somehow logically leads to same-sex relationships. The candidates must deal. Gingrich says he would give the rights that “are most intimately human between friends” to gay couples, like hospital visitation. But no marriage. Huntsman says he likes civil unions and is “glad we are off the contraception discussion.” Santorum says he opposes gay couples’ adopting children but says that should be a state issue, unlike marriage, which should be a federal issue. Santorum also says he wants to nullify the gay marriages that have taken place. Sawyer prompts Romney to address the subject “in human terms.” He says gays should be able to have “a contractual relationship” short of marriage. For Romney, contracts are very human.
51 minutes. Stephanopoulos breaks the gay spell by asking Paul if he would commit to supporting the GOP nominee or run as a third-party candidate. Paul says he has no plans but that his options are open.
54 minutes. Huntsman says he would draw down the troops in Afghanistan in his first year as President. Romney says he would listen to “the commanders on the ground” and bring the troops home as soon as possible. History is at work: Romney’s father George lost his 1968 campaign for President after he questioned the judgment of the commanders on the ground in Vietnam. Mitt won’t make the same mistake.
56 minutes. Huntsman notices and goes George Romney in a big way. “But we also deferred to the commanders on the ground in about 1967, during the Vietnam War, and we didn’t get very good advice then.” Romney lets it pass.
57 minutes. Gingrich says fundamentally for perhaps the first time tonight. He calls for “a fundamentally new strategy in the region,” but he has no time to elaborate. Santorum says he would stay as long as it took. Perry says he would send U.S. troops back into Iraq right away. “We’re going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in at literally the speed of light,” Perry says, endowing the Iranians with physics-defying abilities that would make a nuclear weapon irrelevant.
66 minutes. Break. Still way too early to pop popcorn. Remember. This one will literally take 14 hours to finish.
72 minutes. We’re back. Romney says he wants to rebuild aging infrastructure, which sounds almost as if he agrees with Obama. So he adds that he is against “President Obama’s social-welfare state.”
75 minutes. Gingrich agrees. More talk of infrastructure. Then talk of taxation. No new ground. Moderators try and fail to get something started. Paul says stuff like, “Restore America to our freedoms.” Romney says stuff like, “The people that have been hurt in the Obama economy are the people in the middle class.” Huntsman says, “We’ve got to stimulate some confidence in the creative class of this country.” Perry says, “They want Washington out of their hair.” It’s like those individually packaged, low-calorie snacks they market to overweight, middle-aged office workers — looks like chocolate, tastes like Styrofoam.
85 minutes. Romney notices that everyone is falling asleep. He interprets this as a bell. “The real issue is the vision for this country,” he says. “This election is about the soul of America.” Give him a bone. This passes for passing the test.
87 minutes. Gingrich is jolted to life. He cites the Wall Street Journal editorial board and calls Romney timid and more like Obama. “I do think there’s a difference between a bold Reagan-conservative model and a more Establishment model that is a little more cautious about taking the kind of changes we need.” This falls short of memorable.
88 minutes. Santorum tries to come to life. He agrees that Romney is not bold, then objects to Romney’s use of the term “middle class.” “There are no classes in America. We are a country that don’t allow for titles. We don’t put people in classes,” he says. None of this is true. But at least Santorum is trying.
89 minutes. Romney puts everyone back under his fishy spell. “This is really a campaign about the direction of the country,” he says. Ding-a-ling.
91 minutes. Huntsman gets a question about what he would do in China, and like at other debates, he responds by saying it’s a really complicated issue. “It’s nonsense to think you can slap a tariff on China the first day that you’re in office, as Governor Romney would like to do,” he adds.
92 minutes. For some reason the bell does not ring for Romney. So he hits back, which is dangerous. “I’m sorry, Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this Administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this President from being put forward,” he says.
93 minutes. Huntsman goes native and responds in Mandarin Chinese to Romney. It is not a phrase that can be transcribed in English easily. It sounds like music. The crowd is stunned. It is as if Huntsman was suddenly taken over by the spirit, as if he spoke in tongues. He comes back, though, and says again that Romney is risking a trade war.
94 minutes. Romney says Huntsman is wrong and that the last thing China wants is a trade war. In English.
95 minutes. Cut to last commercial, pre-intermission.
100 minutes. The silly final question. Another softball. “It’s Saturday night, again, as we meet, so if you weren’t here running for President, Governor Perry, what would you be doing on a Saturday night?” “I’d probably be at the shooting range,” says Perry, killing it. Then it goes downhill. “I’d be watching the college championship basketball game,” says Gingrich. There is no such thing. “Football game,” Gingrich corrects, but he is still wrong. That game will be played Monday. It is a train wreck, and Santorum piles on. “I’d be doing the same thing with my family. We’d be huddled around, and we’d be watching the championship game,” he says, even though the game doesn’t exist. Romney says, “I’m afraid it’s football. I love it,” but since the NFL is playing tonight, he may actually know what he is saying. Paul says, “I’d probably read an economic textbook.” Lovable. Huntsman goes last and panders big. “I’d be on the phone with my two boys in the United States Navy, because they’re a constant reminder of what is great about this nation and awesome about the emerging generation in this country.” Really, it’s a pretty embarrassing way to go out for all involved.
104 minutes. That’s it. So far, this has been a bust. None of it will make a difference. Romney’s ding-a-ling training dominates. Now it is intermission time. See you in 616 minutes, when the next debate starts.
720 minutes. We’re back, on a different network, in a different town, on a different date, with the same six guys at 9 a.m. As is his habit, NBC News’ David Gregory is speaking in sentence fragments to introduce with punch. “Small state. Big impact on the race,” he says. “The candidates, the issues and your questions.” That last part is about Facebook, which has partnered with this part of the debate, promising that elusive silliness known as interactivity on a national scale. “Candidates, good morning,” Gregory says. They all respond, in unison, “Good morning.” Coffee seems to have done them good.
721 minutes. The past 617 minutes — it’s true, no one sleeps on the campaign trail — have been filled with pointed criticism of the non-Romney candidates for failing to leave a mark on the front runner. Gregory is here to give everyone another chance. “Speaker Gingrich, why shouldn’t Governor Romney be the nominee of this party?”
722 minutes. Game on. “I think that a bold Reagan conservative, with a very strong economic plan, is a lot more likely to succeed in that campaign than a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate who even the Wall Street Journal said had an economic plan so timid it resembled Obama,” he says. Now Gingrich is saying it himself, not just pointing to what a newspaper said. Gregory doubles down: Is Romney electable? Gingrich loses his nerve. “No, I don’t believe he’s unelectable,” he says, with a triple negative. Then Gregory holds up a Gingrich campaign flyer. “It says very clearly, ‘Romney is not electable,’ ” Gregory says. Gingrich is caught. “I think he will have a very hard time getting elected,” he manages.
723 minutes. Romney gets his chance to respond. Ding-a-ling. “We created more jobs in Massachusetts than Barack Obama’s created in the entire country,” Romney says. It’s a questionable statement. Millions of jobs have been created under Obama. It’s just that more were lost in the beginning of Obama’s term. Romney’s figure is net-net, as he would say.
726 minutes. Santorum gets his chance to make up for last night. “We want someone, when the time gets tough — and it will in this election — we want someone who’s going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run, and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy,” Santorum says. Gregory points out that Santorum praised Romney’s “conservative principles” in 2008. Santorum is caught.
728 minutes. Romney tries to respond. Santorum talks over him. Romney barks, “It’s still — it’s still my time.” Finally, we have a real debate. They bicker for a while. Romney says he’s not a Washington insider. And that he will run for re-election if he is elected President. Romney talks over his time.
729 minutes. This gives Gingrich an entry. “Mitt, I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you, because you’re the front runner,” he says. The crowd delivers the first real applause of the night. Gingrich is feeling good. “Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Gingrich continues. “The fact is, you ran in ’94 and lost. That’s why you weren’t serving in the Senate with Rick Santorum.” This is true. But who ever thought that you could point this out with the words pious baloney?
731 minutes. Romney is swimming a little here. The Pavlovian training has failed him. He gets defensive. “Mr. Speaker, citizenship has always been on my mind, and — and I happened to see my dad run for governor when he was 54 years old. He had good advice to me. He said, Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage,” Romney says. At first this sounds like a strong statement. But it also suggests that only the wealthy should run for office. So it’s a mistake.
732 minutes. Ron Paul comes to Romney’s rescue by talking about TARP and overseas spending and the horribleness of President Obama.
733 minutes. Perry piles on, but instead of going after Romney, he tries to swipe the entire stage. “I look from here down to Rick Santorum, I see insiders,” he says from one end of the stage.
734 minutes. Huntsman gets a question about spending. But he too has slept on last night’s disappointment. He has a prepackaged attack against Romney over the swipe about Huntsman’s serving in China for the Obama Administration. (See Minute 92.) “He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China — yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking who — what political affiliation the President is,” Huntsman says. “I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first.” “Country First” is John McCain’s old slogan. It has a good track record in New Hampshire.
735 minutes. Romney has totally forgotten about Pavlov, the dog, the bell, his game plan. He digs himself deeper. “I think we serve our country first by standing for people who believe in conservative principles and doing everything in our power to promote an agenda that does not include President Obama’s agenda,” says Romney. It’s not a statement he really means, since it would basically prevent conservatives from joining the U.S. military to fight in Afghanistan under Obama.
736 minutes. Huntsman has his best moment in 15 debates: “This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that,” he says to the moderator. Again the crowd erupts in un-Romney cheers. Romney does not respond. He needs to think about the bell.
738 minutes. A discussion commences about the various programs that should be cut to reduce spending. The candidates generally agree on entitlements. Perry gets to revisit his most famous flub, this time remembering the three departments — Commerce, Energy and Education — he wants to eliminate. Santorum gets to talk about reducing food stamps.
743 minutes. Commercial break. Things are going well. Maybe all debates should be Sunday-morning debates.
748 minutes. We’re back. Gregory asks a trick question: “Who knows more about the American economy, Grover Norquist or Warren Buffett?” It’s a trick because the right answer, Buffett, would offend conservatives. And the wrong answer, Norquist, would undermine Romney’s businessman sales pitch. Romney reverts to the royal we. “I’m not sure that we’re going to choose from the two of them,” he says.
750 minutes. More miscellany. Huntsman says again he is interested in a balanced approach to deficit reduction, even though he raised his hand at his first debate, months ago, to suggest otherwise. Gingrich talks about Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. Romney brags about the Democratic legislature he found a way to get along with in Massachusetts. Paul defends his record in Congress of hardly ever getting anything done. Then Paul and Santorum get into another one of their periodic spats. Huntsman says he will restore trust in the country. Perry repeats that Republicans spent too much money during the Bush years. It is as if all the past debates had been put into a blender and spit back out.
762 minutes. Second commercial break. Now would be a great time to pop that popcorn.
765 minutes. A question about reductions in federal subsidies for home heating oil. Huntsman says it’s a real issue. Paul doesn’t want the government to be giving anyone cheap oil. Romney splits the baby and says send the money that is left to the states to better use it.
770 minutes. Gay time. Romney is asked about his 1994 promise to be a “voice in the Republican Party to foster antidiscrimination efforts.” Romney says he has appointed lots of gay people to positions in Massachusetts. Then Santorum gets a couple of questions, including one about what he would do if his son said he were gay. “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it,” Santorum says. “And I would try to do everything I can to be as good a father to him as possible.” Good answer.
772 minutes. The candidates are asked why labor unions are good, which is like asking a Chicago Bears fan to praise Aaron Rodgers. Romney says they train workers well. Santorum says they can bring communities together.
776 minutes. Commercial break. Hope the popcorn is ready. You are really a trooper. Democracy should not be this trying. But it is.
780 minutes. We are back. Why is it that most of what matters in a debate happens either in the first 15 minutes or the last five? That’s a rhetorical question. But there is a right answer: They are too long.
781 minutes. Gingrich is asked about an absurd comment Romney made: that young people will have jobs if he gets elected but not if Obama wins re-election. “I think that’s a statement of fact,” Gingrich says.
782 minutes. This gives Romney a chance to respond, once again, to the bell. “I don’t blame him for the recession and for the decline,” Romney says of Obama. “What I blame him for is having it go on so long and going so deep and having a recovery that’s been so tepid.”
783 minutes. The candidates talk about natural gas, the EPA, the motto of New Hampshire, the prescription-drug benefit, power-plant emissions and other things, without making any news or breaking any new ground.
792 minutes. Final break.
795 minutes. Home stretch. Gregory asks Gingrich and Romney to talk about the super PACs supporting them. They are both asked to disown the PACs’ efforts, and both decline. Romney gets twisted up. “With regards to their ads, I haven’t seen them. And, as you know, under the law, I can’t direct their ads,” he says of his own PAC. The second part is true. The first part is almost certainly not. A few moments later, Romney lays out the factual details of the ad he claims to have never seen. This is sort of damning. But really, who is paying attention at this point? It’s about 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, at the end of the 15th GOP presidential debate. Anyone not being paid to keep up with this stuff who is still keeping up with this stuff should get a prize.
804 minutes. It’s over. It’s done. 804 minutes later. You are free. Until next week in South Carolina, when it all starts again. And there is no prize.