–5 minutes. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly sets the scene for the 16th GOP debate: “All Mitt Romney has to do tonight is not fall down or throw up.” Papa bear. A national treasure.
0 minutes. Big crowd. Curdling screams in Myrtle Beach. You think this is a vacation town? Think again. This is the ultimate political fighting championship, a no-holds-barred blood sport. Little bear Bret Baier announces that Fox News has done away with the time-is-up sound. That’s how crazy it is going to be. “The doorbell didn’t work for dog owners,” he explains. The Google Chat chime didn’t work for anyone born after Watergate. “But warning,” Baier adds. “We do reserve the right to bring back the bell if we have to.” Sure you do.
3 minutes. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gets us going by deflecting a question about how he went from promising to “repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama” to parroting the Obama campaign’s line of attack against Romney. He answers honestly, saying he had two choices after his drubbing in Iowa at the hands of attack ads from Romney allies: “You either have to unilaterally disarm and leave the race, or you have to at least bring up your competitor’s record.” Then he attacks Romney’s job-creation record in Massachusetts.
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5 minutes. Baier has two more follow-ups for Gingrich, both about his Romney attacks. This is called throwing meat to the lions. The crowd is restless. Someone must bleed. But Gingrich is gentle. “I raise questions that I think are legitimate questions,” he says.
7 minutes. The former Massachusetts governor defends himself. Nothing special. “My record is out there, proud of it, and I think if team want to have someone who understand how the economy works, having worked in the real economy, that I’m the guy that can best post up against Barack Obama,” Romney says.
9 minutes. Now it’s Texas Governor Rick Perry’s turn. He is asked about his comment that Romney practiced “vulture capitalism.” Perry gets specific about one of the steel companies Romney invested in. “I visited Georgetown, South Carolina. It was one of those towns where there was a steel mill that Bain [Capital] swept in, they picked that company over and a lot of people lost jobs there,” Perry says. Then he pivots. “And Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money,” he says, meaning income tax returns. The crowd roars like a jet engine. As if Ceasar just tossed swords to the gladiators.
11 minutes. Romney diffuses the roar. Talks about the steel business. Says he wants to “get the private sector working again.” Ignores the stuff about his tax returns, which will almost certainly show that he pays little taxes because most of his income comes from investments.
12 minutes. Another question for Romney, about American Pad and Paper, a company that Romney’s firm took over, loaded up with debt and made money from before it failed. Romney says bankruptcy sucks, free enterprise is good, and America is not Europe. He also says, “We’ve got a President in office three years, and he does not have a jobs plan yet. I’ve got one out there already, and I’m not even President yet.” A stunning bit of misinformation. Obama’s most recent jobs plan is called the American Jobs Act. Kind of hard to miss.
16 minutes. Still not quite the full combat that the crowd wants to see. Maybe Texas Representative Ron Paul can help. He is asked if he should stop attacking other candidates. “There was one ad that we used against Senator [Rick] Santorum, and I was only — I only had one problem, is I couldn’t get all the things in I wanted to say in one minute,” he answers. The crowd likes.
17 minutes. Santorum defends himself with lots of details about the right to work, No Child Left Behind and other things he has voted for that conservatives don’t like. Then he gets outraged about a spot run by Romney’s super PAC that says Santorum wanted to allow felons to vote. Santorum directly asks Romney if felons should be allowed to vote after they have served their time. The back and forth finally starts. Romney starts to answer by dodging, but Santorum cuts him off, demanding an answer to his question. “We have plenty of time. I’ll get there. I’ll do it in the order I want to do,” Romney says. The upshot: Romney is against violent criminals ever getting the vote, he distances himself from the super PAC (even though he has spoken at its fundraisers), and Santorum, who once endorsed Romney to be President, does not like Romney.
22 minutes. Perry jumps in to repeat a line he always seems to be repeating. “Washington, D.C., needs to leave the states alone,” he says. But he can’t leave it there, so he adds, “And let the states decide these issues and don’t do it from Washington, D.C. That’s what needs to happen.” Emphatically.
23 minutes. The candidates have been talking over their time, so Baier says, “We may have to rethink that whole bell thing.” As they say on the tweets, #notarealthreat. First commercial break.
26 minutes. We’re back for the obligatory chain of clichés delivered by the state GOP chair, because this is how Fox News rolls — ads within the infomercial. Back in the Myrtle Beach thunder dome, the moderators try to stick it to Romney one more time, pointing out that recently retired candidate Jon Huntsman called him “a perfectly lubricated weather vane.” Romney smoothly recites stuff he has said before: “I believe in free enterprise, I believe in freedom, I believe in liberty, I believe in an opportunity society.” Believe in America.
30 minutes. Perry is asked about the Justice Department effort to undo South Carolina’s strict voter-identification law. But the question has clear racial overtones: “Governor Perry, are you suggesting on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day that the federal government has no business scrutinizing the voting laws of states where minorities were once denied the right to vote?” Perry runs with it. “I’m saying also that South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this Administration,” he says. To recap: Asked about Jim Crow, Perry embraces the Civil War. South Carolina, you remember, was the first nation to secede in 1860 to defend slavery. Crowd loves it. Mostly for the war. But old racist nostalgia lurks menacingly at the edges.
33 minutes. Discussion of unemployment-benefit policy. Santorum says return the hard decisions to the states. Gingrich says require job training. Then Gingrich keeps the racial undertones going by declaring, “We think unconditional efforts by the best food-stamp President in American history to maximize dependency is terrible for the future of this country.”
36 minutes. Romney gets a question about the possibility of more bank bailouts if Europe collapses. He says he would not give anyone in government a blank check and that he would force failing firms into bankruptcy. Which just about sums up the basic idea behind Dodd-Frank, the Obama-backed financial-reform law that Romney opposes.
39 minutes. Paul is asked about military spending cuts and the impact on a military state like South Carolina. Paul says he would close foreign bases and build up domestic ones.
42 minutes. Each of the candidates must name their ideal income tax rate. Perry says a 20% flat tax. Santorum says 10% and 28%. Romney says 25%. Gingrich says 15%. Paul says 0%. “What’s so bad about that?” he asks. Paul wins.
43 minutes. Romney gets a direct question: Will he release his income tax records? His answer is a Harvard Business School case study in equivocation: “You know, I looked at what has been done in campaigns in the past, with Senator McCain and President George W. Bush and others. They have tended to release tax records in April or tax season. I hadn’t planned on releasing tax records, because the law requires us to release all of our assets, all the things we own. That I have already released. It’s a pretty full disclosure. But, you know, if that’s been the tradition, and I’m not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period, and I’ll keep that open.” Go ahead and try to figure that out. One thing is clear, when Romney says “you know,” you almost certainly do not.
44 minutes. Romney is asked the same question again. It gets worse. “I think I’ve heard enough from folks saying, Look, let’s see your tax records,” he says. “I have nothing in them that suggests there’s any problem, and I’m happy to do so. I sort of feel like we are showing a lot of exposure at this point. And if I become our nominee, and what’s happened in history is, people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that’s probably what I would do.” Probably, if he thinks about deciding to listen to what people say about history and whatnot.
45 minutes. Romney gets a question about his opposition to the Dream Act, which would give citizenship to upstanding immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. “I think we have to follow the law and insist those who come here illegally ultimately return home, apply and get in line with everyone else,” he says.
47 minutes. Santorum is asked about the high unemployment rate in the black community. He cites a study that says the poor should do three things to avoid poverty. “Work, graduate from high school and get married before you have children,” he says. Work is probably the key one on the list for avoiding unemployment.
49 minutes. Paul says there is racial disparity in drug arrests and sentencing. “This is one thing I am quite sure that Martin Luther King would be in agreement with me on,” he adds.
51 minutes. The string of questions about issues for blacks and Latinos continues, with a question to Gingrich about his rhetoric. “You recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?” It’s a loaded question, and Gingrich bites its head off. “No, I don’t see that,” he says. What follows is an epic back and forth between Gingrich, Fox News pundit Juan Williams and the crowd, which is again riled by the scent of blood. Gingrich keeps using lines like “I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.” With the crowd’s help, he vanquishes Williams.
55 minutes. The crowd is screaming so loud with approval for Gingrich that Baier must address the less-frenzied home viewer: “They can’t hear me, but I’ll talk to you.” The crowd is on its feet. Pretty sure this is the first mid-debate standing ovation in 16 debates. Commercial break to regain order.
62 minutes. We’re back. Time to probe Paul’s foreign policy ideas. Paul gets into an argument with Baier about whether he would pursue terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden. Paul says he would but that the details are complex and almost certainly inconsequential to the upcoming presidential election.
65 minutes. Gingrich, emboldened by his destruction of Williams and the liberal elite, calls Paul’s ideas “utterly irrational.” Then he gives the crowd what they came to see. “We’re in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabered by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.” Damn right. Sabered. Fox News shows a crowd shot. People are pumping their fists in the air. Kill them. Kill them.
67 minutes. Paul talks some more about war mongering. Baier again offers his empty bring-back-the-bell threat. Romney distances himself from his own adviser, who made the reasonable observation that you will have to negotiate with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan. But all of this is a letdown. The adrenaline rush is fading. Romney tries to recapture some of it by saying things like “These people declared war on us. They’ve killed Americans. We go anywhere they are, and we kill them.” But a Romney “kill” doesn’t have the bite of a Gingrich “kill.”
72 minutes. Perry sat all this out. But now he gets a curveball, a question about the conservative government in Turkey and whether Turkey deserves to stay in NATO. It’s a leading question, and Perry, trying to look like he knows about this stuff, follows it off a cliff. “Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists …” he begins. This is Turkey he is talking about. The nonterrorist, democratically-elected government of Turkey. It goes downhill from there.
74 minutes. Perry tries to salvage things by suggesting to Baier that Fox News replace the bell with a gong. If only.
76 minutes. Things are getting weird. Romney is asked about a bill Obama signed that included a section the President opposed that allows the military to detain Americans indefinitely. He says he agrees with this section. He is met by huge boos from the crowd.
79 minutes. Baier concedes defeat on the bell thing. “Take whatever time you want,” he says to Santorum. Santorum does. He agrees with Obama that the new military powers are overreach.
81 minutes. Perry, who a few minutes ago called a nonterrorist U.S. ally a terrorist, tries to reclaim his stature by talking about his flat tax and his desire to cut regulation. Asked what can be done to help the housing market, Perry says, “We don’t need the federal government in the housing market anymore.” Seeing as the housing market is now substantially propped up by the federal government, this is basically a call for a sharp temporary decline in home prices.
83 minutes. The candidates give their views on entitlement reform. If you have read the other summaries of the other debates, you already know this stuff.
93 minutes. Break time. Last break.
97 minutes. Romney is asked why he sucks on guns. He explains that he doesn’t suck quite so badly. Then he says he hunted moose recently, or elk. It sounds like this: “I’m not going to describe all of my great exploits. But I went moose hunting, actually — not moose hunting, I’m sorry, elk hunting with friends in Montana. I’ve been pheasant hunting. I’m not the great hunter that some on this stage, probably Rick Perry, my guess is you are a serious hunter. I’m not a serious hunter.” This is, it must be said, much better than the tax-return answer.
103 minutes. More talk of the evils of super PACs, since a pro-Romney group is running a spot claiming that Gingrich favored China’s pro-abortion policies, which he did not. More back and forth over whether Gingrich and Romney could order their supporting PACs to stop using misleading ads, which they probably could. “I have complained about with Governor Romney’s super PAC, over which he apparently has no influence, which makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were President,” says Gingrich. Old ground. Finally, Romney breaks down and declares that he wishes the wealthy people giving to his super PAC just gave to him. “I haven’t spoken to any of the people involved in my super PAC in months, and this is outrageous,” Romney says. By this he appears to mean that it is outrageous he does not have direct control of money that clearly was donated by people who want to donate to him.
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108 minutes. There is apparently extra time, because Perry gets a question about the border fence and Gingrich gets a question about No Child Left Behind. No news.
111 minutes. We are done. The crowd has not yet formed into a mob. No actual blood has been spilled. A success, considering. See you Thursday night. We’ll do it all again. Don’t dwell on why.