0 minutes. TV Guide lists a new episode of Fear Factor at 9 p.m. on NBC. It’s called “Leaches & Shaved Heads & Tear Gas, Oh My! Part 1.” And yet, as the hour strikes, the screen shows another patriotic montage, this time from Tampa, introducing the 18th Republican debate. The NFL plays a 16-game regular season. There are nine circles of hell. God got it done in six days. But democracy is unrelenting, a bit like Joe Rogan, with less forced regurgitation and fewer critter challenges. Which is to say, Fear Factor has been preempted. A fearful nation takes its place.
2 minutes. Blue gels on the audience again, like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, except there will be no “dum-dum-dum,” at least when it comes to sound effects. Brian Williams, the handsomest man to have never been a movie star, is not wasting any time. He lists a lot of bad stuff that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been saying about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Erratic,” “failed leader,” it goes on. “Your response tonight, Mr. Speaker?”
3 minutes. Gingrich responds by reciting his résumé, with extra emphasis on confusing historical analogies that only he knows. He says President Reagan carried “more states than Herbert Hoover carried — than Roosevelt carried against Herbert Hoover.” As is often the case with Gingrich, his words form a shield. By the time he gets to “They’re not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay,” it’s impossible to remember what was asked.
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4 minutes. A wide shot shows Romney standing there, next to Gingrich, with his right hand hanging at his side, ready to draw. But dapper Williams tries again with Gingrich, which allows the former Speaker to continue to take credit for everything good that happened during his decades in the House. “When I was Speaker, we had four consecutive balanced budgets, the only time in your lifetime, Brian, that we’ve had four consecutive balanced budgets.” This is not true. The four years of surplus ran through 2001. Gingrich resigned from office in 1999. Newt gets 2 out of 4. If this were a history class, he would fail.
5 minutes. Romney gets his chance. “I think it’s about leadership,” he says, “and the Speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace.” This is the same Mitt Romney who said in the last debate that he wished he had spent more time attacking President Obama and less time attacking his rivals. Romney calls Gingrich an “influence peddler,” says he encouraged cap and trade and called Paul Ryan’s budget plan “social engineering.”
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6 minutes. Gingrich, doing his best imitation of Romney, from when Romney was the front runner, acts like he is too big a deal to worry about the criticism. “Well, look, I’m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney’s misinformation,” he says, adding that he would rather be attacking Obama. “I just think this is the worst kind of trivial politics.”
8 minutes. Williams still looks like how every 1940s radio-drama detective sounded. He asks Romney whether he can appeal to conservatives. Romney says he does, and pivots. “Let’s go back to what the Speaker mentioned with regard to leadership,” Romney says. He notes that Gingrich was the first Speaker in history to resign. “I don’t think we can possibly retake the White House if the person who’s leading our party is the person who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac,” he adds.
9 minutes. Romney says almost exactly what Gingrich said after Iowa: that the last election taught him he can’t sit back. He has to go on offense. “I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of attacks. And I’m not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire,” Romney says. The two men have traded strategies since South Carolina. Or bodies. Gingrich is now aloof and focused on the general. Romney is trying to muddy the field.
10 minutes. Gingrich returns fire with a couple of zingers: “He may have been a good financier,” he says of Romney. “He’s a terrible historian.” So is Gingrich. (See minute 4.) Then Gingrich proceeds to respond to a lot of stuff he just said he would not waste his time talking about. He tells a rosy version of his fall from the top of the House that would not please his fellow historians. “Apparently, your consultants aren’t very good historians,” Gingrich tells Romney. “What you ought to do is stop and look at the facts.” The intellectual insult. A classic Gingrich move. Like, I know you are, but what am I?
11 minutes. Debonair Williams, he of the slender face and half-Windsor knot, throws it to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has apparently been onstage this entire time. How, asks Williams, is Santorum going to win? Santorum hits his stump speech, saying he is positive and that this is not a two-person race.
14 minutes. There is actually a fourth person onstage as well. Texas Representative Ron Paul gets a question that is basically this: You have no chance of winning, you said you don’t envision yourself in the Oval Office, so will you run as a third-party candidate? Paul says he has been winning the under-30 vote and otherwise doing “pretty darned well.” Then he calls out the historian on his rosy history about giving up the Speaker’s gavel. “This idea that he voluntarily reneged and he was going to punish himself because we didn’t do well in the election, that’s just not the way it was.” True that. Then Paul says, once again, that he has “no plans” to go third party.
17 minutes. Gingrich gets a question about Paul. Gingrich praises Paul for his criticism of the Federal Reserve and desire for a “gold commission,” which is nothing like a blue-ribbon panel. It would study bringing back gold as currency.
18 minutes. Romney says he will release his tax returns for two years on Tuesday morning. But again, he gets tongue-tied. Rich people don’t like to talk about their own money. It is impolite. So Romney says, “The real question is not so much my taxes, but the taxes of the American people.” Suddenly, out of nowhere, Romney, who previously opposed any debt compromise that raised any taxes, is praising the Bowles-Simpson plan, which raises tax revenues by nearly $1 trillion. But Romney doesn’t talk about the deficit part. He talks about the cutting marginal rates part, which by itself would make the debt problem worse. He chastises Obama for having “simply brushed aside” the Bowles-Simpson recommendations, in much the same way that Romney previously did.
20 minutes. More discomfort, as Romney is asked again to talk about his money. “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” he says. “I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for President who pays more taxes than he owes.” Now that is settled.
21 minutes. Gingrich tries to needle Romney by saying he wants everyone to enjoy Romney’s 15% tax rate. Romney points out that under the Gingrich tax plan, investment gains would be taxed at zero. “Under that plan, I’d have paid no taxes in the last two years,” Romney says. This is true. It is the reason Gingrich’s policies are better for wealthy financiers than Romney’s policies. Romney would keep his own tax rate on investments at 15%.
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22 minutes. More awkward talk about Romney’s wealth. “I will not apologize for having been successful. I did not inherit what my wife and I have, nor did she. What we have, what I was able to build, I built the old-fashioned way, by earning it,” he says. This is true, if you discount the fact that his father’s money helped put Romney through college (Brigham Young, Stanford) and earn joint degrees at Harvard (Law, Business).
25 minutes. Now it’s time to talk about what lobbying means. Gingrich worked for lobbyists at Freddie Mac, a quasi-government agency that conservatives despise. He also took lots of money from health care companies while at the same time writing articles and giving talks that furthered those companies’ agendas in Congress. But technically none of it was lobbying, which is a legal term of art. Williams asks the right question, by avoiding the L word. “You never peddled influence, as Governor Romney accused you of tonight?” Gingrich can’t answer. “You know, there is a point in the process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty,” he says, before avoiding the question by saying he never lobbied.
28 minutes. Romney and Gingrich go at it. Romney accuses Gingrich of profiting from an organization that destroyed the housing market in Florida. Gingrich tries to compare his consulting work for lobbyists with Romney’s consulting work for corporations. “Wait a second, wait a second,” protests Gingrich at one point, after Romney admits that his firm made money too. “We didn’t do any work with the government. I didn’t have an office on K Street,” Romney says. It goes on.
33 minutes. Never-a-bad-hair-day Williams cuts them off and goes to commercial break.
36 minutes. We’re back, with charity time for the other two candidates, who have not had much time to talk. Paul and Santorum speak about the housing market and say nothing new. Then Romney says he wants to help homeowners too. And Gingrich says he wants to repeal Dodd-Frank, the banking-regulation bill, because of its effect on smaller banks. Romney agrees.
43 minutes. Cuba question: “Let’s say President Romney gets that phone call, and it is to say that Fidel Castro has died. And there are credible people in the Pentagon who predict upward of half a million Cubans may take that as a cue to come to the United States. What do you do?” The premise is a stretch, since Fidel has already ceded most of his government control to his brother Raúl. Romney tries to make a joke about how Fidel is a bad guy. “First of all, you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land,” he says.
44 minutes. Gingrich retells the joke but gets the punch line right. “Well, Brian, first of all, I guess the only thing I would suggest is, I don’t think that Fidel is going to meet his maker. I think he’s going to go to the other place,” he says. Fidel-in-hell jokes must poll really well in Miami. Then Gingrich says he would authorize “covert operations” to overthrow the Castro regime.
46 minutes. “I would do pretty much the opposite,” says Paul.
47 minutes. Having stirred up the Cuba pot, Williams now accuses the candidates of pandering for votes. Why don’t they care as much about Chinese dissidents and embargo China? Santorum says China is not 90 miles off the coast.
49 minutes. Iran time. Romney criticizes Obama: “We ought to have an aircraft carrier in the Gulf.” Nevermind that the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln is there right now. Gingrich picks up where Romney left off. “Dictatorships respond to strength. They don’t respond to weakness,” he says. The same can be said of Republican primary voters.
52 minutes. Romney tears into Obama on Afghanistan, saying the President should not have reduced troops to the level that he did, allowed elections to go bad or announced a withdrawal date.
53 minutes. Paul pretty much has the opposite view.
54 minutes. Another break. “I’ll welcome two colleagues out here to the stage when we continue from Tampa right after this,” says Williams. Hope for Joe Rogan and Donald Trump. Or Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey.
58 minutes. We’re back. It’s National Journal’s Beth Reinhard and the Tampa Bay Times‘ Adam Smith. After Santorum gets a chance to talk about the evils of Iran, he is asked about offshore drilling. Santorum says the economy in Florida went bad in 2008 “because of a huge spike in oil prices,” which is like saying people watch Fear Factor to see Joe Rogan.
62 minutes. Reinhard asks a great question: How can the candidates be against bilingual balloting, even as they advertise in Spanish to Hispanics? Gingrich and Romney don’t really have answers. So they dance around the edges. Everyone onstage is against multilingual education, except Paul, who doesn’t mind if states do whatever they want.
66 minutes. Immigration time. Same as before, except Gingrich makes clear that he would support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military. Romney agrees. Then Romney says of other undocumented immigrants, “Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is, people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here, because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.” Self-deportation is one of those neologisms that gets added to the dictionary at the end of the year. Sign of the times.
70 minutes. Questions about sugar subsidies. Gingrich says you can’t beat the sugar lobby, because “cane sugar hides behind beet sugar,” and there are “just too many beet-sugar districts in the United States.” Surely someone can work that into a haiku.
71 minutes. Romney says he is against all subsidies. Then he pivots into a long rant about the awfulness of Obama. It is telling that it has taken Romney 71 minutes to get into this rant on Obama. South Carolina transformed him as a candidate.
72 minutes. Paul is asked if he supports federal funding for conservation of the everglades. He lets down his strict libertarian guard to pander for Florida votes. “I don’t see any reason to go after that,” he says.
73 minutes. Another break. Things are speeding up.
77 minutes. Some talk about Terri Schiavo, the woman in a vegetative state who became a cause célèbre for conservatives in 2005. The answers are inconsequential.
81 minutes. Space-cadet time. No, really. Romney says Obama has no space plan, and America needs a space plan. Gingrich is asked about going to Mars. He says he wants a “leaner NASA,” but then shares a terribly expensive list of goals: “Going back to the moon permanently, getting to Mars as rapidly as possible, building a series of space stations and developing commercial space.” At least something new is happening. First time in 18 debates that anyone has talked about Mars.
84 minutes. Gingrich is asked why the Bush tax cuts in the early 2000s did not create a lot of jobs. His answer is priceless. He channels Obama, seemingly unaware of the irony. “In 2002 and ’03 and ’04, we’d have been in much worse shape without the Bush tax cuts,” he says. That’s what Obama says about the stimulus bill. Both are basically right, though neither would give the other credit.
85 minutes. Last break. Almost there. Actually, scratch that. You will never get there. When this debate ends, there will be another. The next one is on Thursday. No joke.
90 minutes. We’re back. Romney is asked what he has done to further the cause of conservatism. He is sort of stumped. Talks about his family and his work in the private sector, neither of which is ideological.
92 minutes. Gingrich talks about how he went to Goldwater meetings in 1964, when he would have turned 21.
93 minutes. Santorum is asked about electability. Suddenly he comes alive. It’s the best moment of any of his debates. Yet few will ever notice, and it will almost certainly not matter. He makes the case that he is the only true conservative who can take on Obama, and that both Romney and Gingrich are fundamentally flawed because they are too close to the political positions of Obama. “There is no difference between President Obama and these two gentlemen,” Santorum says. This is not true, if you were wondering.
95 minutes. Paul talks about the Constitution.
97 minutes. Romney talks about RomneyCare and ObamaCare.
98 minutes. Gingrich says, “I never ask anyone to be for me. Because if they are for me, they vote yes and go home and say, I sure hope Newt does it. I ask people to be with me, because I think this will be a very hard, very difficult journey.” No doubt.
99 minutes. Romney, who talks all the time about “restoring American greatness,” is asked when America was last great. “America still is great,” Romney says, thus undercutting the meaning of his signature campaign message.
101 minutes. That’s it. See you Thursday.