0 minutes. Presidential debates come and go. But tonight’s GOP debate, the fourth in a series too numerous to bear, is a special treat. “We are all gathered under the wings of Air Force One,” says NBC’s Brian Williams, referring to the great phallus of American presidential might that sits in the hangar at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. No setting could be more appropriate. The camera soaks it in–all 153-feet of Reagan’s retired plane.
1 minute. The imagery has clearly affected the candidates. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, for instance, looks great. His jaw is squarer, his chest more puffed out, his tan deeper than he has ever been before. Wait. Scratch that. Pawlenty has been replaced on the stage by Texas Gov. Rick Perry who gets the first question, which is essentially: Why does your state suck so bad, with the lowest high school graduation rates, the eighth highest poverty rate, and more people working for minimum wage than anywhere else?
2 minutes. Perry, not fazed at all, keeps John Wayne cool, and does the proper thing: He attacks Obama. “Americans are focused on the right issue, and that is, who on this stage can get America working? Because we know for a fact the resident of the White House cannot.” Then he gets into a stats debate with Williams. Perry says that Texas created 1 million jobs while America lost 2.5 million. Williams says most of those jobs paid badly. Perry says 95% paid above minimum wage.
(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)
4 minutes. Having failed to rattle Perry, Williams tries to bait former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by noting that his state ranked 47th in job creation when he ran it. For good measure, Williams also mentions that Perry’s strategist called Romney a “buyout specialist.” Romney, always good with numbers, adds a decimal point and attacks Obama. “At the end of four years, we had our unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent,” Romney says. “That’s a record I think the President would like to see.”
5 minutes. Williams, who obviously underestimated the steely effect of that looming plane, tries again, by saying Romney’s old company, Bain Capital, has a habit of stripping down companies and eliminating jobs. Romney says Williams is wrong. Most of the time they added jobs.
6 minutes. Desperate now to get something going, Williams tries to pit Romney against Perry directly. He asks Romney, who has been a career candidate for the last five years, if there is something wrong with being a career politician like Perry. Romney bunts, saying private sector experience is better. Then Perry swings away at Romney. “While he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that,” Perry says. “As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.”
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8 minutes. This is the kind of fight Williams clearly wanted, but he inexplicably tries to ask pizza magnate Herman Cain the next question. “Listen,” says Romney, interrupting. “Wait a second. States are different. Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.” Kazaam. The crowd explodes with applause. The comeback was unexpected, funny, tough. Reagan’s plane just grew a foot longer.
9 minutes. It’s rapid-fire insult time. “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” says Perry. “Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor,” says Romney. “That’s not correct,” says Perry. “That is correct,” says Romney. Williams is beside himself with delight. “Nice to see everybody came prepared for tonight’s conversation,” the host says.
10 minutes. But there is no need to get too excited too soon. This is going to be a long debate. So the next questions go to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and the former pizza company CEO. Santorum talks about how much stuff he has accomplished. Then Cain dips into the zany basket and begins to talk about his 9-9-9 plan, which calls for taxing corporate income, personal income and retail sales at 9% because, “If 10% is good enough for God, 9% ought to be good enough for the fellow government.” This is a reference to a song by the country music novelty singer Ray Stevens called “If 10% Is Good Enough For Jesus (It Ought to Be Enough for Uncle Sam).” Really.
11 minutes. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman gets the next question, but his initial answer is obscured by his fantastic new tan, which contrasts nicely with the gold tie. Has it really been that sunny in New Hampshire recently? After talking about fixing the nation’s “core,” Huntsman says he would like to speak to the people of China in Chinese. Then he gets back to the business at hand. He attacks Perry and Romney for their jobs’ records, taking the decimal point away again. “To my good friend, Mitt, 47 just ain’t going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first,” Huntsman says. He doesn’t really mean the “good friend” part. But neither Perry nor Romney respond. No point in elevating a guy polling under the margin of error.
13 minutes. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is asked by Williams to bash federal regulations. Which she does, with special emphasis on ObamaCare and the fact that she has five biological kids and 23 foster kids.
(PHOTOS: Michele Bachmann’s Life On and Off the Campaign Trail)
15 minutes. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is asked about regulations, and he says that government drug safety regulations are written by drug company lobbyists. So he wants to get rid of government regulations to let the marketplace regulate drugs. In other words, cut out the middle man.
18 minutes. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gets a chance to talk. After advertising newt.org, he says that the fact that Obama does not come to the Reagan library to seek advice from the novelty-country-song-quoting former Pizza CEO Cain “tells you that this is a President so committed to class warfare and so committed to bureaucratic socialism that he can’t possibly be effective in jobs.” Once again: Not making this up.
19 minutes. Politico’s John Harris takes over the questioning by directing everyone to watch a video clip, which doesn’t play, leading to some confusion on stage. The point of the clip is that the other candidates should attack Romney for his health care reform effort in Massachusetts. They do. Perry volunteers to lead the charge. “It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate in this country,” he says. Then Romney defends his record, and the other candidates pile on.
23 minutes. Bachmann is so eager to join the scrum that she calls out “John, John,” and is ignored by Harris, who goes to Huntsman, who talks again about how he is better than Romney and Perry. Nobody minds. No response.
26 minutes. Gingrich accuses the moderators of trying to get Republican candidates to attack each other, which is clearly the case. Perry, who pretty much came into the debate attacking Romney, applauds this bit of populism. Romney does not.
29 minutes. Santorum is asked to describe how his Catholic faith informs his desire to help the poor. He talks about his role in welfare reform in the 1990s, using the third person. “No one did more to work on poverty issues than Rick Santorum,” he says.
32 minutes. In a response on the same topic, Perry uses the word “anglo” to describe white people. With his Texas drawl, the word sounds sort of dirty and exciting, like moonshine or rodeo.
34 minutes. Bachmann says, again, that when she becomes President she will get gas back down to $1.79 a gallon, which everyone knows is impossible without another global economic collapse. But Bachmann tends to do best when she is boldly proposing impossible things. At the last debate, her pitch was about how the best thing the U.S. could do was refuse to raise the debt ceiling, thereby forcing a massive, sudden contraction in federal spending as the country teetered on the brink of recession.
35 minutes. Huntsman is asked if Bachmann is making any sense with her gas price promise. “Of course not,” he says. “We live in the free- market economy. I’m not sure that dictating prices is going to get you anywhere.” Mr. Reasonable.
36 minutes. Paul says he would like to get rid of the minimum wage, attacks Perry for having written a letter supporting Hillary Clinton’s health care reforms, and tries to out-Bachmann Michele Bachmann. “I do want to address the subject of $2 oil or gasoline, because I can do it much better than that. I can get you a gallon of gasoline for a dime,” he says. “You can buy a gallon of gasoline today for a silver dime. A silver dime is worth $3.50. It’s all about inflation and too many regulations.” After putting the letter in context, Perry fires back, saying Paul once wrote a letter criticizing Ronald Reagan. Paul puts his letter in context. Both come off looking trivial and small.
39 minutes. The first break. We are not yet half way done with the debate.
43 minutes. We’re back, and Williams and Harris are standing on the stage. They introduce a video montage praising Nancy Reagan, who is seated in the audience. The montage is set to The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Luckily for the Reagan legacy, the montage drops the song before Richard Ashcroft sings “You’re a slave to money and then you die,” or “Well I never prayed,” or “I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change.” That would have just been weird next to old footage of Nancy Reagan telling kids to “Just say no.”
47 minutes. After a long ovation for Nancy, the debate resumes. Perry is asked about Social Security, and his answer is worth quoting at length, because it will likely haunt him. “People who are on Social Security today, men and women who are receiving those benefits today, are individuals at my age that are in line pretty quick to get them, they don’t need to worry about anything. But I think the Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program. And it is a monstrous lie, it is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there. Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”
48 minutes. Though he doesn’t show it, Romney is happy, and so is the Obama campaign. Perry clearly is gambling that it would be worse to back down than to repeat something that will anger a huge chunk of the voting public. Harris points out that former Vice President Dick Cheney recently praised Social Security, and Perry repeats his claim that it “is just a lie” to say younger people will receive benefits.
50 minutes. Romney pounces with surgical precision. “You say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure. You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it,” Romney says. “The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security.”
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51 minutes. Perry, backed into a corner, seems to have forgotten about the plane hanging above him. “We are not trying to pick fights here,” he says weakly. But up to now, he has been picking fights all night.
55 minutes. Talk turns to teenage girls and cancer of the cervix, which is a historic first for a presidential debate. Perry is asked to defend his executive order mandating a vaccine against a virus that causes cervical cancer in his state. “I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party,” he says, which is accurate. Then he explains that he probably made a mistake.
57 minutes. Romney, closing in for the kill, does not even bother to attack Perry at this point, but instead plays the role of his protector, which must hurt Perry who is up double digits in some national polls. “We’ve each taken a mulligan or two,” Romney says, not adding that he likes to boast on the campaign trail about how little golf he plays. Then Romney pivots to his campaign’s signature one-liner. “This President is a nice guy. He doesn’t have a clue how to get this country working again,” Romney says. The crowd loves it. Big time applause.
58 minutes. Debates tend not to age well. As in the past, everything starts to get weird at about the hour mark, and that’s what happens now. Gingrich gets the ball rolling by saying that he helped design the Department of Homeland Security to withstand “three nuclear events in one morning.” This image is jarring.
59 minutes. But not as jarring as what Paul says next about TSA agents at the airport: “Sometimes they’re accused of all kinds of sexual activities on the way they maul people at the airport.” Nice.
63 minutes. Huntsman tries to restore sanity to the conversation, trying to pivot like Romney just did to the stuff people actually care about. “While all these other issues are important, let’s not lose sight, folks, of the bottom line here,” he says. “We’ve got to get back in the game as a country. We’ve got to make this economy work.”
67 minutes. Jose Diaz-Balart, a host for Telemundo, suddenly appears on the stage with a bunch of questions about immigration reform, which tend to be duds in these debates, since all the candidates have the same answer: Secure the borders first. Sure enough, that’s what the candidates say, resisting Diaz-Balarts efforts to get specific about how the illegal immigrants in this country would be dealt with if the borders are first secured.
70 minutes. Gingrich says legal immigration documentation should be handled by “American Express, Visa, and MasterCard, so there’s no counterfeiting, which there will be with the federal government.”
76 minutes. Huntsman says we should not forget that immigration is a “human issue.”
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77 minutes. Paul reveals new levels of paranoia, saying that he worries a southern border fence could be used to keep Americans from fleeing to Mexico in an emergency. “Every time you think of [a] fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in,” he says. He also wants to end federal restrictions on drug use. Totally unrelated.
78 minutes. Second and final commercial break.
84 minutes. We’re back. Since Perry missed the last debate, when everyone else said they were against a deficit reduction deal that included a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases, Perry is asked if he agrees. He does, saying the solution is “capping it, cutting it and getting a balanced budget amendment.” Though in the Texas twang, he drops the g’s from his gerunds.
85 minutes. The oddness continues. Bachmann weighs in with more logic that doesn’t really make sense. “There’s someone else who would join us in that agreement,” she says, about the consensus to reject a 10-to-1 deal. “And that would be Ronald Reagan, because Ronald Reagan made a deal where he took $3 in spending cuts for $1 in tax increases.” Read that a few more times. Be with it.
88 minutes. Piñata Perry goes all out in response to a question about foreign affairs. “The other thing this President’s done, he has proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job,” Perry says. “Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done. We’ll never have to have that experiment on America again.” Somewhere a fact-checker considers where to even begin.
95 minutes. All of the late-game zaniness is benefitting Romney, who is happily staying out of it, and Huntsman, who keeps chiming in to sound reasonable. “All I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science,” Huntsman says.
96 minutes. But Perry can’t help but play to type. In explaining his contention that man-made global warming is not a “settled” question, he says, “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.” Never mind that those “votes” against Galileo Galilei came not from other scientists, but from Pope Urban VIII and his inquisition.
100 minutes. To make matters more bizarre: Gingrich’s shimmery purple tie is in fact a skinny tie. Can Gingrich be hip? Also, Gingrich says he would fire Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke “tomorrow” if he were President.
104 minutes. Perry is asked about the 234 death row inmates who have been killed while he has been governor, more than any other governor in modern times. As the question is asked, the crowd applauds the number, which pretty much validates Perry’s tough justice position. “I think Americans understand justice,” says Perry, suddenly regaining his footing.
106 minutes. Cain mentions his 9-9-9 plan one more time. No new musical references in his answer.
107 minutes. Ron Paul is asked about something that Lyndon Baines Johnson once did. But the question depends on an esoteric historical allusion, and it is late. While he is answering, Williams gets the signal that he and Harris are going over time.
109 minutes. “The campaigns have notified us we’re actually a few minutes over the time we were allotted for tonight, and so our questioning will have to come to an end,” Williams says. One more shot of Reagan’s big plane, still impressive despite the night’s proceedings. And we are done.