0 minutes. The CNN spaceship is set to launch, with blue gels on the lights that give the auditorium an alien aquarium vibe. It’s the 17th GOP debate of 2012 cycle. Roll the intro montage: “Welcome to the South, the heart of the Republican Party,” says the hokey disembodied voice, doing its best imitation of a Stephen Colbert send up, “where tradition lives and values matter.” What? Do Iowa and New Hampshire not care about tradition and values? Nonsense. But we push on. We are veterans. We have learned to let the silly slide.
2 minutes. Each candidate gets a shout out. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is “the frontrunner.” Texas Rep. Ron Paul is “the insurgent.” Rick Santorum has “renewed momentum,” though recent polls show it is in the wrong direction. Newt Gingrich is “on the rise.” Then each of the men take the stage with their variation of a high school dweeb strut. Romney is third, and the most talkative. “Hi guys,” he says to the others. “Newt,” he says shaking Gingrich’s hand. “Ha ha,” he says, because perhaps it is funny to be shaking Gingrich’s hand. “And then there were four,” he adds, because that is all that remain.
5 minutes. CNN pomp is unending, as usual. After Twitter and Facebook mentions, some military cadets sing the national anthem. The crowd turns to a flat-screen projection of Old Glory. “That was fabulous. Absolutely fabulous,” CNN host John King says afterward. At some point, the debate will start. But first he asks the candidates to make short opening statements. For those who speak Republican, this means, “Brag about your brood.”
7 minutes. Santorum begins, noting his “wife Karen and our seven children.” He also thanks Iowa “for a little delayed but most welcome victory there.” Romney beats Santorum, not in Iowa, but in brood count. “I’m married now 42 years. I have five sons, five daughters-in-law, 16 grandkids, and they’re the joy of my life.” The married-a-long-time thing is a knock on thrice-married Gingrich, though Romney would probably swear to his grave that this is not true. Gingrich eschews brood stats for geographic pandering. “As a Georgian, it feels good to be back at home in the South,” he says. Paul mentions that he has been elected to Congress 12 times, 30 years as an obstetrician, and “I’m the only U.S. veteran on this stage tonight.”
9 minutes. Finally a question, and it’s a doozy. Would Gingrich like to respond to his second wife’s claim that he wanted an open marriage more than a decade ago? “No, but I will,” he says, looking ornery. The crowd likes his attitude. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” The crowd is on its feet applauding. “To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.” The place is going nuts. Gingrich goes on for a while. Then he adds, as if it no longer matters, “The story is false.”
11 minutes. Gingrich is still going. “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.” A second standing ovation. If being President only required an ability to rile the public into rage against the press, America wouldn’t need an election. There would be a coronation.
12 minutes. King asks Santorum if this open marriage/mistress stuff is an issue. Santorum says yes, as softly as he can. “These are issues of our lives and what we did in our lives,” he says. “They are issues of character for people to consider.”
13 minutes. Romney won’t go there. “John, let’s get on to the real issues is all I’ve got to say.” The crowd likes that too.
14 minutes. Paul uses his turn at the Gingrich mistress plate to say media corporations are bad. “What about the corporations that run the media?” he asks, before joining in the media’s attack by adding apropos of nothing in particular that he has been married 54 years.
15 minutes. New topic. Unemployment. Name three things you would do to help reduce it. Paul says “sound currency,” less regulations and near-zero income taxes. Gingrich says repeal Dodd-Frank, increase domestic oil and gas exploration, and radically overhaul the Corps of Engineers.
18 minutes. King follows up by asking Gingrich to attack Romney for his work at Bain Capital. Gingrich indulges, describing “Bain Capital’s model, which was to take over a company and dramatically leverage it, leave it with a great deal of debt, made it less likely to survive.”
19 minutes. Romney is asked to respond, and attacks Obama. “You’ve got to stop the spread of crony capitalism. He gives General Motors to the UAW. He takes $500 million and sticks it into Solyndra. He — he stacks the labor stooges on the NLRB so they can say no to Boeing and take care of their friends in the labor movement,” he says. The crowd rewards the Obama bashing with applause.
20 minutes. King persists on Bain, asking Romney to explain how he comes up with the figure of 120,000 jobs created at the firm. Romney says that is what four companies he helped to start now employ. “I’m someone who believes in free enterprise,” he continues. “I think Adam Smith was right. And I’m going to stand and defend capitalism across this country, throughout this campaign.” Then he turns it up a notch. “I know we’re going to get hit hard from President Obama, but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.” The foie gras attack.
22 minutes. Santorum distinguishes between regular capitalism and the “high finance” of Romney. “We need a party that just doesn’t talk about high finance and cutting corporate taxes or cutting the top tax rates,” Santorum says. “We need to talk about how we’re going to put men and women in this country, who built this country, back to work in this country in the manufacturing sector of our economy.” He’s the Joe Biden of the GOP. Pure Scranton.
24 minutes. Talk about the challenges faced by returning military veterans. Everyone on stage is concerned. Paul says he worries about the high rate of suicide. Santorum says there should be job preferences. Romney says he wants the states to do much of the work. Gingrich says cut taxes and help veterans with a program like the G.I. Bill after World War II.
31 minutes. Question on ObamaCare. Romney says repeal it and replace it with something “like a market, a consumer market, as opposed to have it run like Amtrak and the post office.” This is not an accurate description of how ObamaCare works, but let it slide. Move on. Gingrich says he’d “repeal all of it because I so deeply distrust the congressional staffs that I would not want them to be able to pick and choose which things they cut.” By this logic, congressional staff would never get to do any legislating. But let it slide. Move on.
35 minutes. Santorum uses this opportunity to attack both Romney and Gingrich for once supporting the individual mandate in ObamaCare. He calls Romney’s health reforms in Massachusetts “an abject disaster.” Romney objects. “First of all, the system in my state is not a government-run system,” he says. This is true, but it is kind of funny to hear Romney say it, since he just mischaracterized ObamaCare as a “government-run system.” Let it slide. Move on.
39 minutes. They go back and forth for a while, covering old ground. At one point, Romney does another “Ha ha,” to express condescension at the attacks on him. When it comes around to Gingrich, he changes the subject by saying, again, that he wants 3-hour debates with Obama. “I will let him use a teleprompter. I would just rely on knowledge. We’ll do fine.” A real crowd-pleaser that Gingrich.
42 minutes. After more needling from Santorum, Gingrich admits he was wrong about the individual mandate.
43 minutes. Paul finally gets a chance to talk again. He says government should not be involved in medicine. Then he pivots to a discussion about why U.S. military bases overseas are bad, as are recent military adventures.
45 minutes. That brings us to the first break. Before cutting to commercial, King says Gingrich has released his tax returns while the candidates have been on stage. Nice trick. Can we expect gimics like this in future debates?
49 minutes. We’re back. King promptly gets Gingrich and Santorum fighting again. “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” Santorum says. “I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and worrying about what he’s going to say next.” That is a line taken almost word-for-word from the Romney campaign. Then Santorum says he finished ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire, which is not true. Gingrich got 49 more votes. Nonetheless, Santorum accuses Gingrich of having “not cogent thoughts.”
53 minutes. Gingrich responds by listing pretty much everything good that happened during his two decade run in the U.S. House. Then he says, “I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things.” Applause of course. More tit for tat follows. But no more fancy words like grandiose.
56 minutes. Romney tries to chime in by saying that this squabbling just shows he’s the outsider who can fix Washington. But Romney does it really awkwardly, describing himself as someone “who’s lived in the real streets of America.” Not clear if he is referring to the old family mansion in Belmont, Mass., or the beach house in La Jolla, Calif., or the Deer Valley, Utah, lodge he once owned. Or maybe another “real street” he has yet to disclose. In the middle of the answer, Romney gets lost. Then he finds his way, and attacks Gingrich for not really having as much to do with Ronald Reagan as he claims. “You’re mentioned once in Ronald Reagan’s diary,” Romney says.
58 minutes. Gingrich shoots back. “You did very well under the rules that we created to make it easier for entrepreneurs to go out and do things,” he says to Romney. “I don’t recall a single day saying, ‘Oh, thank heavens Washington is there for me,’” Romney responds.
59 minutes. Question for Paul. Will he release his tax returns? “I’d probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their income,” he jokes of the others on the stage.
60 minutes. Romney cleans up his big mistake from the last debate, and says he will release his tax returns in April. Then, as he always does when uncomfortable, he attacks Obama. “You’ve got a President who’s played 90 rounds of golf while there are 25 million Americans out of work,” Romney says.
63 minutes. Santorum says he will release his returns as soon as he gets home and prints them off his computer.
64 minutes. King asks Romney if he will release 12 years of his tax returns, like his father George Romney did when he ran in 1968. Romney smiles at the mention of his father, but doesn’t answer the question. “Maybe,” he says, as the crowd starts to boo. “You know, I don’t know how many years I’ll release.”
66 minutes. King asks a question premised on the fact that the best example of American corporate success at the moment, Apple Inc., has 500,000 employees in China and much fewer in the United States. This allows Santorum to get another Joe Biden riff going about revitalizing American manufacturing. Paul sees the question as an opportunity to deliver an economics lesson on the benefits of trade. Then Paul and Santorum bicker about Santorum’s one-time aversion to a national right-to-work bill.
71 minutes. King asks a question about the recent bills in Congress that would put new restrictions on websites to protect intellectual property. He also discloses that CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, which is also TIME’s parent company, is a big supporter of these bills. The mention of the corporate monster responsible for The Hangover II and Harry Potter VII earns lots of boos from the crowd. “You’re asking a conservative about the economic interests of Hollywood,” Gingrich jokes. Bottom line, Romney, Gingrich and Paul are against the bills. Santorum is against the bills as well, but more eager to find some new rules to further protect intellectual property. “Where in America does it say that anything goes?” Santorum asks. There are some places, but Santorum has probably never been to them.
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76 minutes. Break number two. Say what you want about the evils of Time Warner, but at least it allows CNN to go light on the commercial breaks.
78 minutes. We’re back. No we’re not. Another commercial break. Ignore the corporate backscratching at minute 76. Another movie made by Time Warner: Cats and Dogs–The Revenge of Kitty Galore.
81 minutes. Back for real this time. The candidates are asked for one thing they would do over in the campaign. Gingrich says he would skip the first three months of the campaign when he “hired regular consultants and tried to figure how to be a normal candidate.” Romney jokes that he would “get 25 more votes in Iowa.” That’s funny. Then Romney adds, “I guess I also would go back and take every moment I spent talking about one of the guys on the stage and spend that time talking about Barack Obama.” This is disingenuous, but on message, and thus an apt summary of Romney’s apparent strength and weakness. (As Romney says it, his campaign is blitzing reporters with more anti-Gingrich agitprop by e-mail.) Paul and Santorum can’t think of anything they would do differently.
84 minutes. Immigration time. Same as before. Build a fence. Etc. Just look through previous “What You Missed” summaries to get the idea.
95 minutes. Abortion time. Gingrich attacks Romney for changing his mind on the issue. “Governor Romney has said that he had a experience in a lab and became pro-life, and I accept that,” Gingrich says. Experience in a lab. Priceless. Then Gingrich says that Romney still appointed pro-choice judges, and still allowed for Planned Parenthood to benefit from his state health reforms. Santorum piles on, saying the country needs a pro-life crusader, not just a pro-life politician. It’s like a tag team. At one point Gingrich even says, “I’ll yield to Senator Santorum.” Romney defends himself by pointing out that he had little choice, given the state he was in, and says he really is pro-life.
103 minutes. Paul finally gets a chance to speak again. He gets into a spat with Santorum about his own pro-life record. Paul calls abortion “a violent act” that should be handled by state, not federal, law; Santorum disagrees. At one point, Paul says to Santorum, “You are overly sensitive.”
107 minutes. Final break.
111 minutes. We’re back. King asks for closing arguments. Paul talks about liberty. Gingrich talks about certain doom if Obama is reelected, and suggests he is the only person who can defeat Obama. Romney lapses into his stump speech, quoting from the Declaration of Independence, and whatnot. Santorum argues that you need a conservative who will draw a sharp contrast with Obama.
118 minutes. “That concludes our debate this evening,” says King. And so it does. Four candidates still remain. No one knows how many more Republican debates are left. Should they go the way of that one pizza guy, they too won’t be missed.