-1 minutes. As everyone awaits the third Republican presidential debate of the season, Bill O’Reilly is wrapping up his show on Fox News. When he threatens to call Professor Cornel West a “pinhead,” America knows. It’s go time.
0 minutes. “Thanks Bill,” says Bret Baier, the blockishly handsome anchorman with a hard-boiled name. He welcomes everybody, but it’s hard to hear him. Apparently thousands of people in the massive Iowa State University auditorium are screaming at the top of their lungs. Has something gone wrong? The camera pans back to show a swirling light show dancing over the crowd. Fox News knows how to get the party started. Hit them with the lights.
1 minute. Baier introduces all the candidates by laying out the horror: a stock market in turmoil, 14 million out of work, a credit downgrade and soldiers dropping in Afghanistan. It’s an emergency situation. “So tonight, we are respectfully asking the candidates to try to put aside the talking points,” he says. Then he asks Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann if she was serious when she recently claimed that she could turn the economy around in the first three months of her presidency?
3 minutes. Bachmann says she would start to turn things around in three months, and then retreats to talking points: “In the last two months I was leading on the issue of not increasing the debt ceiling. That turned out to be the right answer,” she says. This doesn’t make sense, since what she proposed never took place. But her argument is clear: The best way to turn the economy quickly around is to shrink government spending by about 40% and probably default on the national debt. That’s the argument.
4 minutes. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is asked a follow-up question. But it doesn’t matter what the question is. Baier could have asked Romney to name Santa’s reindeer, and Romney still would have answered, “If you spend your life in the private sector and understand how jobs come and go, you understand that what President Obama has done is the opposite of what the economy needed.” Romney goes on to announce a seven-point plan for recovery. Number six is “great institutions that build human capital.” Left unstated: Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s list is four things. So Romney is already winning by three.
(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)
5 minutes. Baier follows up by asking Romney why he hid behind slogans instead of engaging in the recent debt limit debate. Romney repeats his vague slogans. Then a game show bell rings: “ding ding.” Everyone is confused. Baier explains that candidates can only talk for one minute at a time or the bell rings. But this doesn’t stop him from asking Romney a third question, about the recent debt-limit compromise. “If you were President, you would have vetoed that bill?” Romney refuses to answer, says, “I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food.” On this point, Romney is unwavering.
7 minutes. A couple of questions for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and a game show “ding ding.” Paul says the country is bankrupt and the wars are bad. The crowd, which has remained rowdy, applauds the line about cutting military spending.
9 minutes. Pizza magnate Herman Cain gets to talk about his four-point economic plan. “I represent growth,” he says, though it’s not clear what this means. He is growing? He has grown? He doesn’t seem to be. He says that it is imperative that the economy be fixed in less than 90 days, unlike slowpoke Bachmann.
10 minutes. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the newcomer to the stage, gets his first question: Why doesn’t he have an economic plan on his website? He looks handsome, but also surprisingly petite. His blow dry lacks the volume of the Romney ‘do, but he answers like Romney would, blowing by the question, saying the website is a work in progress. “I’m going to do what I did as governor. It is called leadership,” he says.
11 minutes. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is asked what makes him qualified to create jobs. Gingrich responds by listing lots of numbers. Of the 1981 Reagan tax cut, Gingrich says, “That tax cut led to seven years of growth, which in our current economy would be the equivalent of adding 25 million jobs, $4 trillion to the economy and $800 billion this new federal revenue.” He continues to talk about his record in the 1990s. “First tax cut in 16 years. . . unemployment dropped to 4.2%.” The blur of figures recalls dialog from an Aaron Sorkin script, back when Sorkin still smoked stimulants.
13 minutes. Pawlenty is asked again about the unrealistic growth assumptions in his economic plan. He says, as he has said before, that he is guilty of thinking big. Then he makes Romney the punch line of a long joke. “Where is Barack Obama’s plan on Social Security reform? Medicare reform? Medicaid reform? I’ll offer a prize to anybody in this auditorium or watching on television, if you can find Barack Obama’s specific plan on any of those items, I will come to your house and cook you dinner. Or if you prefer I’ll come to your house and mow your lawn. In case Mitt wins, I’m limited to one acre. One acre.” The joke is that Romney is rich, and has a lot of lawn. As Pawlenty is telling it, the “ding ding” happens.
14 minutes. Romney is asked to respond. “That’s just fine,” he says of Pawlenty’s joke. Translation: Find someone to attack me who matters.
15 minutes. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also has a four-point plan. Still three shy of Romney’s.
16 minutes. Fox News’s Chris Wallace takes over the questioning. He basically looks like Pawlenty, aged a few years with a few more pounds. Older Pawlenty asks younger Pawlenty to attack Bachmann, and younger Pawlenty does, saying her governing results are “nonexistent.” So begins a five-minute slap fest between the two candidates. Bachmann calls herself the “tip of the spear.” Pawlenty questions the usefulness of her “titanium spine.” Bachmann says Pawlenty supported cap-and-trade, individual mandates and big government, while she favored the freedom to choose energy wasting light bulbs. Pawlenty says Bachmann has a record of “making false statements.”
(PHOTOS: Michele Bachmann’s Life On and Off the Campaign Trail)
21 minutes. The Fox hosts finally regain control, and ask Romney a question about his work at Bain Capital. Once again, Romney looks more like a President than anyone else on the stage, though he is burdened with the vocabulary of an accountant. “In those 100 businesses we invested in,” he says, “tens of thousands of jobs net/net were created.” Or is it, net-net? Romney surely knows.
23 minutes. Baier cuts away to commercial break. We are, it seems, just getting started.
27 minutes. Wallace takes over the questioning again, asking Gingrich why anyone should take him seriously since most of his campaign staff resigned, calling him an undisciplined campaigner and fundraiser. Gingrich, a former Fox News employee, attacks his own. “I took seriously to put aside the talking points,” he says. “I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions.” Then he fixes Wallace with what can only be described as a death stare that lasts for an uncomfortably long time. “I would love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us what we would do to lead an America whose President has failed to lead instead of playing Mickey Mouse games,” Gingrich concludes. The crowd loves this. Or Fox turned the light show on again.
29 minutes. But Wallace is just getting started. He lists Huntsman’s less conservative positions, and says, “Some have suggested that maybe you are running for President in the wrong party.” Then he points out that Cain has seemed to not know much about foreign policy. Both Cain and Huntsman make game attempts at defending themselves.
32 minutes. It’s time for questions about illegal immigration. Everyone wants to secure the borders first. At one point, the “ding ding” bell rings.
39 minutes. Romney gets another question. Rick Santorum must be steaming off screen. He has only spoken once, and for just a few seconds. But Fox does not show Santorum, so we can only guess.
42 minutes. Pawlenty calls on Obama to “cancel his Cape Cod vacation.” Certainly, on Martha’s Vineyard someone is watching this. He spits out his chilled Chardonnay, turns to his wife, and makes a joke about the geographical ignorance of that guy from Wisconsin, or Minnesota, or wherever.
43 minutes. Bachmann and Pawlenty get back into it. Bachmann is asked about why she voted to raise cigarette taxes in the Minnesota legislature. She says, “Governor Pawlenty cut a deal with the special interest groups and he put in the same bill, a vote to increase the cigarette tax, as well as the vote that would take away protections from the unborn.” Pawlenty points out that this doesn’t make sense. “Her answer is illogical,” he says. “If there were two bad things in the bill–a tax increase and hypothetically stripping away pro-life protections–which we weren’t, then it is a double reason to vote against it. She voted for it.” But this is not a setting where logic carries the day.
44 minutes. Santorum is ready to blow. You can feel it. You just can’t see him on the screen. Then, he pipes up. “There are people over here who haven’t had a chance to say a lot,” he says.
45 minutes. Santorum gets his chance. He doesn’t say anything memorable.
48 minutes. Baier asks everyone to raise their hand if they would oppose a debt deal that offered $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Everyone raises their hand, though Pawlenty’s hand bobs up and down a bit. High fives at Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters.
49 minutes. Gingrich rides another wave of indignation. “I think this supercommittee is about as dumb an idea as Washington has come up with this my lifetime,” he says. “The idea that 523 Senators and congressmen are going to sit around for 12 months while 12 people are going to sit in some room and come up with a trillion more force us to choose between gutting our military and accepting a tax increase is irrational.” Yet again: one sentence, four numbers.
50 minutes. Pawlenty is invited to attack Romney for passing health care reform in Massachusetts. Pawlenty attacks Romney for healthcare. Romney does not care.
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52 minutes. A series of questions about federalism. Pretty boring stuff until Santorum pipes up to promote Uncle Sam’s heavy moralizing hand, especially when it comes to stopping gay marriage. “We have Ron Paul saying, what the states, whatever they want to do on the 10th amendment is fine,” he says. “If they want to pass polygamy, fine, sterilization, fine. No, our country is based on moral laws.”
57 minutes. Rattled by talk of sterilization and polygamy, Baier gives the camera a Sinatra look, and cuts to commercial. As the cameras pull away, all of the candidates leave their places on the podium. Clearly this is the pee break commercial break. One of the ads is for a movie called The Debt, which is funny because it has nothing to do with taxation or spending. It’s about hunting down Nazi war criminals.
60 minutes. We’re back, and Baier announces a lightning round, which is a bit like turning up the heat on boiling water. Then a surprise: “Are we missing a candidate on the stage?” Everyone looks around. Bachmann didn’t make it back in time. A few seconds later, she rushes into place.
61 minutes. The candidates are asked about Rick Perry. They talk about themselves instead.
64 minutes. A series of questions about foreign policy. The interrogators try to trip up the candidates, with no real success.
69 minutes. Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, is asked about cyber-attacks from China. “We need dialogue at the highest levels between the United States and China,” he says, which is strange, because that was kind of his job.
72 minutes. Ron Paul says the CIA has told him that they have no evidence that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon. And he doesn’t think the U.S. should stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon even if they do have one.
74 minutes. Santorum can’t take it anymore. He says Iran must be confronted. “Iran is not Iceland, Ron.” This gets Paul going. They debate whether the U.S. war with Iran started in 1953, when the U.S. helped to install the shah of Iran, or in 1979, when the shah was deposed.
80 minutes. This is where things start to get weird. Santorum is asked if he really thinks Attorney General Eric Holder is “perhaps smoking mushrooms” for wanting to try terrorists in civilian court. Santorum responds by saying that the Iranian regime “tramples the rights of women, gays and people throughout their society.” This is Santorum, the guy who was saying just a few minutes ago that it would be good to impose morality from the federal government. The non-sequiter is jarring. But perhaps it can only be understood by injecting marijuana or drinking cocaine.
82 minutes. Paul and Santorum are still going at it. You know who is loving this debate? Mitt Romney. Another commercial break.
(MORE: Operation “Kill Romney”)
85 minutes. We’re back. Gingrich is asked if he is comparing Americans to Nazis when he talks about the need for loyalty oaths. Or maybe this didn’t happen. It’s hard to tell with all the mushrooms and polygamy being bandied about. And the lights.
89 minutes. Bachmann is asked, “As President, would you be submissive to your husband?” The crowd howls its disapproval. She stays cool. “Thank you for that question,” she says. “What submission means to us, it means respect.”
93 minutes. Paul is asked if he would be okay with state approval of polygamy. Really. Polygamy. Nazis. Mushrooms. Submission. Now more polygamy. You know those trips that seem like they will never end, even though they don’t last so long. This may be one of those.
94 minutes. Minutes passing faster now. Things getting weirder. Santorum won’t drop the polygamy business, starts talking existentially. “It is not beyond reality,” he says. “It is being litigated in our courts now.”
100 minutes. Huntsman repeats the phrase “EPA’s regulatory reign of terror” several times.
102 minutes. Bachmann gets going again on the debt ceiling. “This is madness. I’ve been across Iowa,” she says. “People are almost unanimous: do not raise the debt ceiling.” Pollsters call this selection bias.
106 minutes. Lots of support on the stage for auditing the Federal Reserve.
107 minutes. Romney, still winning.
(MORE: Is Iowa Tim Pawlenty’s Last Stand?)
109 minutes. Because it’s up there with polygamy, Santorum is asked why he doesn’t support returning to the gold standard. “A Tea Party goal in Iowa is to revert back to the gold standard, something you oppose,” goes the question. “How do you consider yourself in line with the Tea Party without agreeing on this major issue?” Santorum has no idea how to answer. Would anybody?
110 minutes. Bair, looking as exhausted as everyone else, cuts to a final commercial break.
115 minutes. Huntsman gets one last chance to prove that he doesn’t blend in with this crowd. He says that it would be bad if the nation defaulted on its debts: “I thought Speaker Boehner should be complimented for what he did.”
116 minutes. Closing statements. Santorum thanks the people of Iowa. Cain repeats, “I represent growth.” Then he says, “A poet once said, ‘Life can be a challenge, life can seem impossible, but it is never easy when there is so much on the line.’ ” This is bad poetry. In fact, it’s a line from the Donna Summer song, “The Power of One,” which was released on the soundtrack for the “Pokemon: The Movie 2000.” Those lights, combined with the polygamous Nazi mushrooms, will mess you up.
117 minutes. Paul talks about liberty. Romney sounds presidential. Bachmann tells people to vote for her in the straw poll. Huntsman says he loves his country. Gingrich says people should tell their Congressmen to get back to Washington tomorrow to repeal financial regulatory reform.
121 minutes. Baier mercifully ends it all.