0 minutes. Dry your eyes. It’s hard on all of us. But if you keep crying like this you won’t be able to see the 20th debate, perhaps the last of the primaries. We can do this together, learn to let go. But the sobbing must stop. James Earl Jones just said, “This is CNN.” John King is standing on the space stage. We have so many memories. Let’s make just a few more. King says this debate “could change everything.” Believe.
1 minute. Montage. High desert mountains. Low political clichés. “Grand showdown.” “All over the map.” “Could take another turn.” “Fight to the finish.” Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is the “late contender.” Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the “Long Distance Runner.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “Determined Challenger.” Texas Representative Ron Paul is the “Delegate Hunter.” None of these words mean anything.
3 minutes. Montage ends with a quick aerial shot of the indoor arena from a helicopter, soaring over the Phoenix suburbs, which look just like every other suburb. Then back inside. The candidates come out. Lumbering Gingrich. Measured Romney. Goofy Santorum. Amiable Paul. Romney makes a show of applauding Paul, so the others join in. Like old times.
4 minutes. Arizona State University’s symphonic choral group does the national anthem. Always loved the student groups the best. Much better than the B-grade show-tune types.
7 minutes. Self-introduction time. Paul is “defender of the Constitution.” Santorum will talk about “positive solutions.” Romney gets going on a long riff about “a secure future and a prosperous life.” But when he says Obama is bad, the crowd’s Pavlovian response takes over. They applaud, interrupting Romney, who concedes. “That’s good enough. As George Costanza would say, when they’re applauding, stop. Right?” Actually Jerry Seinfeld said that. Close enough.
8 minutes. Gingrich goes with some fresh, jarring images. “I’ve developed a program for American energy so no future President will ever bow to a Saudi king again,” he says. Vote Gingrich. Vote rude diplomacy. Also “$2.50 a gallon gasoline.”
9 minutes. Questions. This one from a guy named Gilbert, who worries about the U.S. debt being so high, which is an enormously bland question. Santorum has a stump speech answer. He will go after “means tested entitlement spending” but not defense. He goes on for a while.
11 minutes. Then King gets to the point: He asks Romney if Santorum is fooling the country with his fiscal conservative pitch. Seems that whole first question for Santorum was a set up. Romney drops debt-sized chunk of oppo. “Well I’m looking at his historic record, which voting for raising the debt ceiling five different times without voting for compensating cuts. Voting to keep in place Davis-Bacon. . . . Voting to fund Planned Parenthood, to expand the Department of Education.” He goes on. One thing Romney has is a real talent for memorization.
13 minutes. Santorum responds by pointing out that Romney would have voted to raise the debt ceiling too. But Romney’s entire political approach is to deny completely obvious facts like this in favor of focus-group-tested one liners. So Santorum catches on with a one-liner of his own. “Governor Romney raised $700 million in taxes and fees in Massachusetts,” he says. “I never voted to raise taxes.”
14 minutes. Romney doesn’t respond to the claim directly. But he does say “cut, cap and balance” a couple of times. He also says he intends to cut taxes for everyone who pays them, “including the top 1 percent,” which is an odd thing to emphasize, given his problems connecting with those not in his income bracket.
15 minutes. Gingrich gets a chance to talk. He promises “$2.50 gasoline” again, which is exactly the sort of political pander he would probably call “fundamentally dishonest” if one of his opponents offered it. Never mind though. Gingrich has a theme.
17 minutes. King asks Paul why he called Santorum “a fake.” “Because he’s a fake,” says Paul. So good. Paul goes on to point out that Santorum is now against a lot of the things he once supported, like the No Child Left Behind education law.
19 minutes. Santorum comes back with a bunch of facts about all the conservative ratings saying he is conservative in comparison to other members of Congress. “That’s always a cop-out when you compare yourself to the other members of Congress,” Paul hits back. “The American people are sick and tired of the members of Congress. They get about a 9% rating.” If Paul was only selling something people wanted to buy, he would have a good shot at winning.
21 minutes. King asks Romney what the deal was when he called himself “severely conservative” a couple of weeks ago. “Well, severe, strict,” says Romney, basically admitting it was a mistake. Of course he will not admit that he has not actually been a strict conservative, just that he doesn’t say it right when he tries.
22 minutes. Have we mentioned the chairs? This is different. Everyone is sitting down. Only Romney has kept his suit jacket buttoned. Good judgement there. He looks like he is ready. The rest look like they are reclining after a big meal.
25 minutes. Talk turns to earmarking. And it’s complicated. Santorum is against earmarks now, but he doesn’t apologize for voting for them before. Romney is against Santorum voting for earmarks before, but he isn’t against his work to get earmarks before. Gingrich is generally into earmarks. Paul, who hates all government spending, also defends earmarks. The candidates flesh these positions out for 8 minutes. Real confusing. At one point, Romney says after Santorum talks for a while, “I didn’t follow all of that, but I can tell you this.” It is a near perfect transition sentence. But what follows is also pretty unintelligible.
30 minutes. Here is a typical exchange: “Attached to a bill? Attached to a bill?” asks Romney. “As part of the bill. Congressman Paul…” says Santorum. “And the President can’t veto it?” asks Romney. “He can veto the bill,” says Santorum. “The whole bill, but he can’t veto the earmark?” asks Romney. “Well, we tried to do that, by the way. I supported a line-item veto,” says Santorum. “That’s what I support. That’s what I support,” says Romney. “Hold on. Hold on,” says Santorum. Democracy in action.
34 minutes. From earmarks to bailouts. Santorum says he is against all bailouts, and that Romney opposed the auto bailout but supported the bailout of Wall Street in 2008. Romney gets all huffy. “Nice, nice try,” he says. An inferior transition sentence. Then he explains at length his auto-non-bailout position. He says he wasn’t just bailing out Wall Street by supporting TARP, but trying to bail out all banks. And he pulls out more oppo on Santorum. “Now, Senator you voted in favor of the bail out of the airline industry after 9/11,” he says. “I think that was the right thing to do. It was an emergency.” This is an odd attack, since it is actually a compliment.
39 minutes. Santorum can’t let Romney get away with the compliment-attack. “As Governor Romney well knows, that the American government shut down the airline industry after 9/11,” Santorum begins. But pretty soon Romney is interrupting. “I agree with you,” he says. “I agree.” All confusing. Like two gladiators blowing deadly kisses.
41 minutes. Gingrich says Obama is bad and Chrysler is now a foreign company. Paul says government involvement in pretty much anything is always bad.
42 minutes. Our first commercial break. How you holding up? Maybe these aerial shots of Mesa, Arizona, which looks like a dun-colored office park, will help.
46 minutes. We’re back. A question about birth control, which sparks boos from the crowd. So Gingrich steps in. “But I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. Okay?” Okay. It is not true that Obama voted in favor of infanticide. And it is not true that the elite media ignored the charge that he did.
47 minutes. Romney pivots away from contraception to religious freedom, and condemns Obama for “most recently requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth control, sterilization and the morning-after pill. Unbelievable.” This is a good line, as long as you don’t go back to Dec. 8, 2005, when Romney himself was quoted saying, ““My own view is that every hospital should provide to rape victims information about emergency contraception, or emergency contraception itself.” Unbelievable, you say? Believe it.
49 minutes. Santorum returns to contraception, which he has previously said he would speak out against as President. By definition, contraception prevents pregnancy, but Santorum suggests it does the opposite, by encouraging teen sexuality. “What we’re seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically,” he says. So vote Santorum, and prevent pregnancy with less contraception. Or something like that.
51 minutes. Paul, who is a doctor, doesn’t buy Santorum’s logic. “Along the line of the pills creating immorality, I don’t see it that way,” he says. “I think the immorality creates the problem of wanting to use the pills. So you don’t blame the pills.” He has a point.
53 minutes. More talk of contraception. Romney again denies that Massachusetts ever wanted to force Catholic hospitals to be involved in emergency contraception, even though that was his position at the time. Gingrich points this fact out, and then goes on to suggest that any government involvement in issues like contraception is always a “move towards tyranny.” The crowd likes this line.
55 minutes. The whole debate is really becoming difficult to follow, and not just because of all the emotion surrounding the potential end of the GOP debates. Santorum says, “I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding,” which provides federal support for family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood. But in 2006, Santorum said, “I support, you know, Title X.” Really. It’s okay if you want to give up. Or cry. Start now.
59 minutes. Romney points out that Santorum said something different back in 2006. “I think I was making it clear that, while I have a personal more objection to it; even though I don’t support it, that I voted for bills that included it,” says Santorum, as if this makes anything clear.
60 minutes. To recap the first hour. Most of the candidates both hate earmarks and like earmarks. Romney hates restrictions on Catholic hospitals, but once supported them. Santorum hates federal family planning funding, though he once supported it but only because he supported the bills that included it. Gingrich will deliver $2.50 gas. Now we can begin the next hour.
61 minutes. Santorum and Romney are squabbling about RomneyCare and whether it led to ObamaCare. Romney pulls out a zinger: “The reason we have Obama Care is because the Senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, the pro-choice Senator of Pennsylvania that you supported and endorsed in a race over Pat Toomey, he voted for Obama Care. If you had not supported him, if we had said, no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obama Care. So don’t look at me. Take a look in the mirror.” Again, good memorization. Romney also says he is against ObamaCare because it cuts a private, add-on program for Medicare.
62 minutes. Santorum shoots back by pointing out that RomneyCare required hundreds of millions of dollars in additional federal subsidies to work, which is true. Then Santorum delivers a zinger of his own, saying Romney’s boasts of balancing the budget on the state level don’t mean anything, since governors have no choice, which is true. “Don’t go around bragging about something you have to do,” he says. “Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years, does that make him qualified to be President of the United States? I don’t think so.” Applause. Santorum then defends his support of Specter, for complicated reasons connected with the Supreme Court and the Senate Judiciary Committee, even though Santorum has previously told voters that he regrets supporting Specter. Abandon all hope any who want this to make sense.
65 minutes. Question about immigration. Everyone wants a strong border. Then there is a crowd shot of Rick Perry in the audience. He still looks handsome. Without a microphone, he has more gravitas. Gingrich reiterates his desire for a double fence on the southern border. Romney calls Arizona’s tough immigration laws “a model,” and promises to drop the lawsuits to throw the laws out on constitutional grounds. Santorum also says he wants more enforcement.
72 minutes. King quotes Republican rising star, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, as saying the immigration rhetoric in the GOP has been “harsh, intolerable, inexcusable.” He asks Gingrich to respond, and Gingrich dodges. “Is there somebody somewhere who’s done that? “ he says. “Sure.”
74 minutes. Another commercial break. It has gone dark outside, so no more aerial shots.
80 minutes. We’re back. Each candidate is asked to describe himself in one word. Paul says “Consistent,” which is true. Santorum says, “Courage,” which is strange, because he has spent the night explaining away uncourageous positions. Romney says “Resolute,” which is also strange for basically the same reason. And Gingrich says “Cheerful,” which is nearly a perfect response, because it means, “You are all a bunch of clowns, and I put up with you.”
81 minutes. Foreign policy time. Romney is not going to give a position on more women on the front lines of the military. Though he does say he wants to grow the size of the military dramatically, and that Obama is terrible for a number of reasons. Gingrich also won’t bite on women in the military, though he does call Obama “the most dangerous President on national security grounds in American history.” Paul says he wants fewer wars, especially the ones with the U.S. on offense. Santorum reiterates his concern about women in the infantry, and says he would not just defer to military leaders.
90 minutes. All the candidates agree that Iran is really dangerous, must not get a nuclear weapon, and is run by crazy people. Except for Paul, who appeals to his colleagues: “If they are so determined to go to war, the only thing I plead with you for, if this is the case, is do it properly. Ask the people and ask the Congress for a declaration of war. This is war and people are going to die. And you have got to get a declaration of war.” This is unlikely to happen.
100 minutes. Santorum gets a question about his past support for No Child Left Behind, which he now opposes. Santorum says he supported the bill for the worst political reasons, without believing in what he did at the time. “I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake,” he says. The crowd boos. “Courage” Santorum.
(MORE: The Passion of Rick Santorum)
103 minutes. Romney and Gingrich like local school control and choice. They don’t like teachers unions. Paul basically agrees, except he wants the federal government out of the school business completely.
108 minutes. One more break.
111 minutes. Final question. What is the biggest misconception about you? Paul says it’s the media’s notion that he can’t win. Gingrich doesn’t answer the question. He just talks about how ready he is to solve big problems. Romney also dodges, and goes into his stump speech about restoring America’s promise. King points out that this is not a response to the question. Romney gets testy, “You know, you get to ask the questions want, I get to give the answers I want. Fair enough?” This is jarring and off message. Doesn’t feel restorative. Santorum says people don’t understand that he can beat Barack Obama.
116 minutes. That’s it. We’re done. And we may never return. It’s been 20 debates. A long wild ride. We made it. Let the tears flow.