What You Missed While Not Watching the Last Florida GOP Debate

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney spar during a debate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville on Jan. 26, 2012

0 minutes. “Only one thing is certain,” CNN’s opening montage declares. “Expect the unexpected.” That hits the spot. We need false hope at a time like this. It’s the 19th Republican debate. Everything that can happen probably already has. The screen flickers with a Romney video clip from the campaign trail. “We’re not choosing a talk-show host,” he says. This will need to be fact-checked.

3 minutes. Wolf Blitzer. Facebook. Twitter. You know the drill.

4 minutes. Candidates on the catwalk. They walk out like they have done before. Nothing changes. They shake hands, then stand for the national anthem, sung by the local college’s chamber singers, who have dressed for the occasion like Puritan flight attendants. They sing well, which is totally unexpected. Santorum and Romney sing along. Gingrich, Paul and Callista Gingrich, who is seen in a crowd shot, keep their mouths closed. Will have to keep an eye on them. You never know.

7 minutes. More Blitzer, who repeats the rules we have heard 18 times before. Then he asks the candidates to introduce themselves.

(MORE: Major League Primary: Why Florida Is the Big Show of the GOP Race)

8 minutes. Santorum introduces himself by introducing his 93-year-old mother, who could easily pass for 81, in the audience and makes everyone feel good. She stands, Santorum smiles with pride, and the crowd cheers wildly. “I’d better just stop right there,” Santorum says. Yes, he should. He should also pick Mom for Vice President.

9 minutes. More of the expected. Gingrich says he is from neighboring Georgia. Romney says he has 16 grandkids. Paul says he champions “a sound monetary system,” which really has nothing to do with expensive acoustics, though don’t tell his college-age voters. The dude is totally rad.

10 minutes. First question on immigration. This is totally unexpected. Immigration is usually asked at the end of the debate. Crazy. To allay the shock, the candidates give answers that are no different. Everyone onstage likes laws, wants to seal the borders and embraces legal immigration. There are requisite mentions of American Express and MasterCard handling identification cards.

14 minutes. “I don’t think anyone is interested in going around and rounding up people around the country and deporting 11 million Americans,” says Romney. Oops. He recovers quickly: “Or, excuse me, 11 million illegal immigrants into America.” Paul follows up by saying he would end U.S. military involvement on the Afghan border to pay for more guards on the Mexican border.

16 minutes. Blitzer asks Gingrich why he called Romney the “most anti-immigrant candidate” in a recent ad. “Because, in the original conversations about deportation, the position I took, which he attacked pretty ferociously, was that grandmothers and grandfathers aren’t going to be successfully deported,” Gingrich says. This is a backhanded way of accusing Romney of wanting to deport Santorum’s sweet mother, if she had no papers.

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19 minutes. Romney, who has been giving Gingrich the evil eye, pounces. “That’s simply unexcusable. That’s inexcusable,” Romney says, flip-flopping un for in in three words. “Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.” It’s the first time in 19 debates that someone has used the word repulsive. Unexpected and about time. Romney goes on to say he is not going to round up grandmothers. He is just going to deny them employment and hope they leave the country.

20 minutes. Gingrich says he would like Romney to “self-describe” himself, if he is not anti-immigrant, for wanting to expel grandmothers. Romney, in full alpha-dog mode, is off again. “There are grandmothers that live on the other side of the border that are waiting to come here legally. I want them to come here too, not just those that are already here,” Romney says. So he is not anti-Grandma; he just favors some over others. More Grandma back and forth follows.

21 minutes. Blitzer asks Romney about an ad he is running that says Gingrich called Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” “I haven’t seen the ad, so I’m sorry. I don’t get to see all the TV ads,” Romney replies. Later Romney adds, “I doubt that’s my ad, but we’ll take a look and find out.” It is Romney’s ad — a Spanish-language radio spot. Gingrich said it, in a discussion about the importance of learning English, and later admitted that he chose his words poorly.

23 minutes. A question about the influence of China in Latin America. Paul calls for more free trade. Santorum warns of radical Islam in Venezuela and promises to be more involved in the continent as President. Paul and Santorum squabble about the proper reach of U.S. foreign policy.

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29 minutes. During the squabble, Blitzer double-checks the origin of the Romney ad. “It was one of your ads. It’s running here in Florida on the radio. And at the end you say, ‘I’m Mitt Romney, and I approved this ad.’ ” Romney has no response. “Let me ask the Speaker a question. Did you say what the ad says or not? I don’t know,” he says instead. “It’s taken totally out of context,” protests Gingrich. “Oh, O.K., he said it,” Romney concludes, misrepresenting what Gingrich just said to prove that he had not previously misrepresented something Gingrich once said.

30 minutes. Moving on to housing. How do you get Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae out of housing? Romney attacks Gingrich for once working as a political consultant for Freddie Mac. “We should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn tooter,” says Romney. Romney never uses bad words. Maybe this is why tooter sounds so naughty.

31 minutes. Gingrich responds by attacking Romney for holding stock in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as well as investing in Goldman Sachs, “which is today foreclosing on Floridians.” Romney shoots back that most of those investments were in mutual funds controlled by a blind trust. Back in 1994, Romney argued that blind trusts were not really blind, since politicians could still direct the investments. But never mind that now. Because Romney afterward says, “And Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments?” Apparently Gingrich also owned stock in Fannie and Freddie. Gingrich says, “Right,” thereby admitting his whole attack was a giant exercise in hypocrisy.

34 minutes. Gingrich finds his comeback. “To compare my investments with his is like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant,” Gingrich says. Never before has elephant been used as an insult in a Republican debate. Unexpected.

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35 minutes. Paul is asked to comment. “That subject really doesn’t interest me a whole lot,” he says, to applause. Got to love that guy. He goes on to blame the housing bubble on the Federal Reserve.

36 minutes. Santorum chastises Blitzer for focusing on these issues. “Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies — and that’s not the worst thing in the world — and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard?” he asks. Not likely. But the crowd applauds.

37 minutes. First commercial break. Blitzer promises to talk about space when we return.

40 minutes. We are back to talking about tax returns. Is Gingrich satisfied with the Romney releases? “Wolf, you and I have a great relationship. It goes back a long way. I’m with him,” Gingrich says of Santorum. “This is a nonsense question.” Blitzer points out that Gingrich recently said of Romney, “He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.”

41 minutes. Just as Gingrich seems to be succeeding in getting the question dropped, Romney jumps in. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?” he says. So Gingrich pivots from bickering with Blitzer and attacks Romney. “I don’t know of any American President who has had a Swiss bank account,” he says. “I’d be glad for you to explain that sort of thing.”

(MORE: Major League Primary: Why Florida Is the Big Show of the GOP Race)

43 minutes. Romney blames the blind trust. Then he finds words to defend his wealth that have been missing for the past three debates. “I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free-enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that,” Romney says. “I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40%.” The two men go back and forth a bit more.

45 minutes. Some talk about tax rates. Gingrich tries to explain why he both talks about Romney’s tax rates in a derogatory way and wants to reduce his taxes to zero by eliminating the capital-gains tax. Gingrich says he wants everyone to pay what Romney now pays in taxes, even if it means reducing Romney’s taxes further. “My goal is to shrink the government to fit the revenue, not to raise the revenue to catch up with the government,” he says. Santorum chimes in to say he doesn’t want taxes quite as low as Gingrich. Paul says he wants to get rid of the 16th Amendment, which gives Congress the power to collect taxes.

49 minutes. Blitzer asks Paul if he will release his health records. “Oh, obviously, because it’s about one page,” the 76-year-old says. “I’m willing to challenge any of these gentlemen up here to a 25-mile bike ride any time of the day in the heat of Texas.” Everyone else onstage agrees to release their health records too.

50 minutes. Space-cadet time. Romney is against a moon base but for a vibrant space program, whatever that means. Gingrich is for a moon base, largely to beat the Chinese, but he says lots of the efforts to get there could be done with private enterprise. Santorum thinks a moon base is too expensive. “Well, I don’t think we should go to the moon,” says Paul. “I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.” Paul is so cool. Maybe his sound monetary policy does have beats after all.

56 minutes. Blitzer points out that Gingrich would allow a lunar colony with 13,000 Americans in it apply for statehood, which is probably a pander to the same stoner college vote that Paul has wrapped up. Romney, who is still in alpha-dog mode, attacks again. “I spent 25 years in business,” he says. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’ ” Romney tends to get in trouble when he talks about firing people. Yet he still does it. Then he accuses Gingrich of pandering to Floridians, like he did to South Carolinians and to New Hampshirites.

59 minutes. Gingrich answers by pandering more. “The port of Jacksonville is going to have to be expanded because the Panama Canal is being widened, and I think that’s a useful thing for a President to know,” he says. He also talks about the Everglades. Then he claims again to have created four consecutive balanced budgets, which is not true. (See last debate recap.)

60 minutes. Paul points out that the balanced budgets Gingrich claims still included deficits, if one accounts for the money that was taken out of Social Security. “I agree with Ron,” Gingrich responds, once again undermining his own talking point. “I actually agree with you, and I propose that we take Social Security off budget.”

62 minutes. Question from the audience by an unemployed woman without health insurance. She asks what the candidates would do for her. Paul says he would get government out of health insurance. Gingrich says he would repeal ObamaCare and get the economy going again and create a new health reform that gives her a tax break to buy health insurance.

64 minutes. Romney basically agrees and then attacks President Obama. This is the first time he has attacked Obama in a sustained way. Last debate, this moment came at 71 minutes. In the previous dozen or so debates, he attacked Obama with just about every answer.

66 minutes. Santorum goes after Gingrich and Romney for supporting ObamaCare-like health reforms in the past. The substance has been well trod in prior debates. But what is notable is that in the tit for tat that follows, Santorum kind of gets under Romney’s skin in a way that Gingrich has so far failed to do. “I make enough mistakes in what I say, not for you to add more mistakes to what I say,” Romney says at one point. It’s meant as a joke. But no one laughs.

72 minutes. As Santorum continues to tear into Romney for the horror of what he did in Massachusetts in 2004, it is worth remembering that Santorum endorsed Romney for President in 2008.

75 minutes. “Congressman Paul, who is right?” asks Blitzer. “I think they’re all wrong,” Paul says.

76 minutes. The candidates are asked to name Hispanic leaders they could see in their Cabinet. They all do. Except Paul. “I don’t have one particular name that I’m going to bring up,” he says.

78 minutes. Commercial break.

82 minutes. We’re back. Candidates are asked to say why their wives are great. Paul says he has been married 54 years, and his wife wrote “a very famous cookbook, The Ron Paul Cookbook.” Romney says his wife has overcome breast cancer and multiple sclerosis and wants to make sure young women don’t get pregnant before marriage. Gingrich says his wife plays the French horn and writes patriotic books. Santorum says his wife has written a couple of books — one about their child who died at birth and one about training kids to have good manners.

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88 minutes. Romney and Gingrich are asked to bicker over who is closer to Reagan. Romney admits that it took him a long time to come around to the Reagan view. “I became more conservative,” he says. Gingrich says Nancy Reagan told him the Reagan torch had been passed to him. Then he attacks Romney. “In ’92 he was donating to the Democrats for Congress and voted for Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary,” Gingrich says. “In ’94, running against Teddy Kennedy, he said flatly, I don’t want to go back to the Reagan-Bush era, I was an independent.”

91 minutes. “I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot,” says Romney, which is a pretty misleading thing to say. There was also a Republican primary in 1992. Romney could have chosen to vote in it.

92 minutes. Questions about Cuba. Santorum is against the Obama policy of liberalizing relations. He warns of “jihadists who want to set up missile sites” in Cuba or Venezuela. Paul shoots back that he doesn’t think the American people “see a jihadist under the bed every night.” If he had any chance of winning, Paul would be seen as the winner of this debate.

95 minutes. Romney attacks Obama’s Cuba policy. So does Gingrich.

98 minutes. A self-described Palestinian in the audience, as part of a question about Middle East peace, says, “I’m here to tell you we do exist.” Romney responds by saying, “It’s the Palestinians who don’t want a two-state solution.” This is not true. The Palestinians have gone to the United Nations demanding just such a thing, though they differ with Israel about borders and conditions. Gingrich repeats his previous claim about Palestinian invention. “It was technically an invention of the late 1970s, and it was clearly so. Prior to that, they were Arabs. Many of them were either Syrian, Lebanese or Egyptian or Jordanian,” he says. By that standard, Americans are an invented people too. But no one points this out.

102 minutes. Question about Puerto Rican statehood. Santorum panders a lot, praising Puerto Rico and its leaders — but then declines to take a position on statehood.

105 minutes. Question about how religious views would affect their presidencies. Paul says that all that matters to him in the job is the Constitution. Gingrich says he would pray for guidance and stop the war against Christianity that is being waged by the “secular elite.” Santorum says he understands that rights come from God, not government.

110 minutes. One more break.

113 minutes. Last question: Why are you the person most likely to beat Obama? Paul suggests that he can pick up support from Obama’s base by coming at the President from the left on foreign policy and civil liberties. Romney recites his stump speech. Critical time, social-welfare state, etc. Gingrich does a riff about Saul Alinsky, food stamps and appeasement. Santorum says he can win blue collar Reagan Democrats.

120 minutes. We are done. Pretty much as expected. Now Florida must vote. The outcome will no doubt determine how many more debates must be endured.

(MORE: Election 2012)

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