Play by play follows, but first, the score.
Newt Gingrich had the most to lose but he didn’t do the most losing. Ron Paul had a terrible run when attempting to explain his policies on Iran’s nuclear program, ultimately losing a one-on-one confrontation with Michele Bachmann. This was Ron Paul’s worst debate.
That isn’t to say that Gingrich emerged unscathed. His work for Freddie Mac seems to be catching up with him, and some of the air seemed to be leaking out of his campaign. He faced a tough five-minute grilling over it tonight and was unconvincing.
Mitt Romney was very steady, occasionally funny and never unpleasant. Jon Hunstman had a solid night, probably his best, as did Rick Santorum, who showed very solid instincts on a range of issues and came off as relatively friendly. Bachmann defeated Paul only to lose an exchange with Gingrich over abortion. And Rick Perry had his best night yet, strong on policy, self-deprecating, energetic from start to finish. If there is an award for “Most Improved,” Perry surely earned it tonight.
Now, the play by play as I saw it.
Prior to the debate in Sioux City, Newt Gingrich walked back his ill advised Bain capitalist attack on Mitt Romney. This was a good move for two reasons, as Jonah Goldberg noted at National Review. One, it was the right thing to do, and two, it probably forced the other candidates to throw out some canned and rehearsed zingers.
Bret Baier opened the debate in a fanfare that felt a bit like the introductions before an NBA game before asking an unfair question of Newt Gingrich: Can you lay the doubts about you completely to rest? There is no way to do that in one question in one debate. Perhaps in a one-on-one debate presenting an either-or choice, but not in the seven-candidate format we had tonight. Gingrich got about as close as one could though, touting his 90% ACU record and the balanced budgets and welfare reform he led as speaker of the House.
Ron Paul picked up the first real laugh line, answering Megyn Kelly’s question whether he would back the nominee if he isn’t it. He said anyone on the stage could beat Obama – that got the laugh. He did not actually answer the question, though.
Ron Paul often strikes me as not that far removed from Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory: One lab accident away from turning into an arch villain. Recent polls suggest Iowa might provide that lab accident.
Rick Santorum said he wants the people of Iowa to catch fire. For him, for him.
Romney’s answer to the question of his own electability was smooth, articulate and routine until he talked about his own failures in business. Try to imagine Barack Obama coming off nearly as sincere. A) Obama has never been in business, and B) Messiahs don’t fail.
Michele Bachmann claimed the mantles of authenticity and doing something.
Neil Cavuto asked Rick Perry whether he can take on Obama in a debate. Not only does the Texas governor look forward to debating Obama many times, he pledged to get there early. Then Perry compared himself to unconventional but routinely victorious Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow, calling Texas the “national champion of job creation.” He hopes to be the Tim Tebow of this election. There’s a GOP pickup for Colorado, and they never had a shot at California anyway. It might make Missouri a little shakier than it should be, though. Florida? In the bag. Shrewd, Gov. Perry.
Jon Huntsman pledged not to try to please people, or sign pledges. And he looked sad.
After a round of questions about leadership and how would each candidate work with Congress, Huntsman closed the first segment by noting that he racked up 80% of the vote in Utah by telling voters what he would do and then delivering. He didn’t come off as inspiring, but found some credibility in there. Also: It didn’t exactly hurt that he belongs to the state’s most dominant church. Try running as a Mormon in Massachusetts. He’d end up like Mitt Romney, which would be an improvement, come to think of it.
Back from the break, and Chris Wallace hit Newt Gingrich with the Bain anti-capitalist remarks, in a question to Romney about how he would handle that kind of criticism coming from President Obama. Romney answered that he would use the comments to school the president on how capitalism works in the real world, and he would hit Obama for closing down dealerships and factories while he ran Government Motors. Good answer, delivered comfortably. Business is Mitt Romney’s wheelhouse, and it shows. Wallace turned guns on Gingrich, asking him about the money he made working for Freddie Mac after declaring that anyone who profited from its failure should pay for it. Gingrich declared that he was in the “private sector” when he did that work, similar to his answer in the last debate. It’s no less laughable an answer a few days later, and did not earn any applause. Ron Paul took the assist from Wallace to put the ball in the net – government-sponsored enterprises, and working for them, is not true private sector work. Over to Bachmann, who reiterated her accusation that Gingrich peddled his influence and said that she is shocked he is still defending that work. Applause followed. Gingrich shifted to defense, saying that Bachmann isn’t speaking the truth, that he never lobbied, and that he tried to pass some reforms years earlier in Congress. The timeline here does not help him; he was under hire with Freddie while it and Fannie Mae were in the early stages of collapse and Republicans in Congress were attempting to open them up. Democrats defended the GSEs, and it appears that Gingrich at least muddied the Republican drive for reform at the time. And, the economy collapsed. Bachmann noted that PolitiFact backs her up.
Cavuto question to Ron Paul: Aren’t you inconsistent when you hammer Washington spending while you bring the earmarked pork back to your district? Paul says no, communities have every right to apply to get their own money back. And then he defended earmarks, somewhat persuasively. He doesn’t like them but will use them as long as they are a part of the system. And boy, does he use them.
Cavuto to Perry: You’ve said we have to get Congress to cut spending, but when you were Texas agriculture commissioner you oversaw some loan program that the Austin American-Statesman says didn’t do well. Perry punched the Statesman – from this Texan, huzzah! – and then railed that we need to overhaul Washington by forcing Congress to live within its means. Applause. Then Perry suggested that Congress meet every other year, like the Texas legislature does.
Twitter question to Romney: Where will jobs come from? Romney: Not from the government. Romney put on an optimistic kick that earned him whoops and applause.
Gingrich earned applause for hammering at the Ninth Circuit’s decision to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance a few years back, and for pledging to take on radicals in the judiciary. He cited Thomas Jefferson for abolishing 18 of 32 federal judges, and really got his history on assailing lawyers for thinking that as judges they can dictate to the rest of us. Over. The. Wall. He was responding to Megyn Kelly, who before joining Fox, was a lawyer. But Bachmann may have moved up in the polls by lauding Iowans for their historic vote to kick out a trio of the state’s supreme judicial court justices in 2010. Kelly then turned eventually to Mitt Romney, noting that as governor of Massachusetts he appointed more Democrats and independents than Republicans. Romney blamed the state’s political environment. Santorum noted that he actually campaigned against the judges that Iowans kicked out, which is true. Perry noted that he has already advocated ending lifetime appointments to the bench and replacing them with staggered appointments that would keep them more predictable and less political.
Who’s your favorite justice on the Supreme Court? Perry, Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann picked the conservative four – Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts. Paul said they’re all good and all bad, refusing to pick just one. But no one picked Anthony Kennedy, the mercurial Reagan appointee who is most likely to be the deciding vote in next year’s ObamaCare case. So, this exchange could backfire.
And with that, the debate reached the hour mark.
Foreign policy and Ron Paul lead off after the break, in a question about Iran’s nuclear program from Bret Baier which noted that by his statements Paul is to the left of President Obama. Paul said that the UN has no evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons (not true, even the limp IAEA says they are) and that he fears “another Iraq” is being created. And then he compared Iran to the Cold War-era Soviet Union, earning applause but dispensing his credibility. “We don’t need another war!” said Paul. Iran has behaved as if it has been at war with the United States since 1979. Iran’s president has said he intends to destroy the Great Satan, us, and the Little Satan, Israel, and nuclear weapons are his preferred means. How Paul has missed that while spending the past several decades in Washington is anyone’s guess. Santorum, noting Iran’s attitude since 1979, explained the facts to Paul. Who will surely ignore them as he has been for years. Rick Santorum might make a fine secretary of Defense. His instincts are solid and he has a strong defense record from his days in Congress.
Mitt Romney earns a laugh line for mocking President Obama’s “pretty please, Iran, return our stealth drone!” Pounding Obama’s foreign policy comes easy for anyone on the stage but Ron Paul, and Romney does well here. Bachmann follows up by accusing Obama of intentionally attempting to lose the peace our troops have won in Iraq, and then rips into Ron Paul’s ideas on security, earning applause and boos simultaneously. Bachmann forces Paul to admit that he doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. I’m not sure I’ve heard him say that before. He actually seemed to sense that he was losing the argument. And then he questioned why we were flying a drone over Iran at all. Perhaps, to keep an eye on their nuclear program because we can’t trust the UN that Paul keeps referring to? Paul flew his freak flag more brightly than he has in any previous debate, and lost a heated battle of wits and facts to Michele Bachmann. He ended the exchange in a long-winded, rather intemperate, babble about when he was drafted and how we must declare war before taking any military action. This was by far Paul’s worst moment of any debate, any time he has run. And it was one of Bachmann’s best. Paul should experience a slide back down the polls after tonight. A question about his beliefs concerning 9-11 could have sunk Paul for good, but it went unasked.
Laugh moment: Responding to Cavuto, Gingrich says he is “editing” his comments so that he doesn’t appear “zany” before calling Obama’s policy on the XL Pipeline and the tax cut extension “utterly incomprehensible.” Gingrich then called on Congress to keep attaching the pipeline authorization to the tax cut and keep forcing Obama to veto it. You read about that idea first here in the Tatler, by the way, and the House Republicans are doing it.
Perry closed the segment with a paean to the 10th Amendment, and how it should empower states to decide many of their own economic policies.
Return from the break, to take up border issues. Tweet of the night at this moment came from Emily Miller, who tweeted: “How great would it be if Bret Baier came back from commercial and said ‘We’re going to end a half hour early folks, enjoy your night’?”Alas, it didn’t happen, but if it had we would have missed Megyn Kelly asking Rick Perry about Fast and Furious. Perry said that if he found out his own attorney general had a Fast and Furious going on and didn’t know about it, Perry would fire him. His press team followed that up with a release noting Perry’s op-ed titled “Eric Holder Must Go.” Perry noted that Obama has declared the border “safe” while bullets fly across it. He noted that Hizballah and Hamas are operating in the border region. He called for a Monroe Doctrine to stop these terrorist groups from setting up shop in Mexico. Over. The. Wall. Santorum agreed with Perry and followed up with more facts that the Obama administration will promptly ignore.
Romney and Gingrich offered various ID and enforcement ideas, and Huntsman noted that Obama has so screwed up the economy that illegal aliens aren’t coming here anymore. He also said that the GOP need not pander to Hispanic voters when its family values and small government ideals resonate with the majority of Hispanics. Solid answer from Huntsman.
Turning to social issues under the direction of Chris Wallace and with set-ups guaranteed to start fights, Romney and Santorum sparred over Romney’s actions as governor of Massachusetts, when that state’s supreme court mandated gay marriage. Bachmann hit Gingrich for failing to de-fund Planned Parenthood when he was speaker of the House, and for his efforts to campaign for pro-choice Republicans. Gingrich’s response: Bachmann doesn’t have her facts right, he believes that life begins at conception, and he has a very strong pro-life voting record. It is odd that Bachmann never goes after Romney when his record on social issues is the weakest of any of the candidates on that stage. Never. Gingrich wins the exchange easily, even while slipping in another big government idea: government funded adoptions.
Final question: Has the heat of the campaign been too hot? Santorum: No. Perry: It’s been good training and he thanked the other candidates. Romney: We can handle it. Gingrich: I’ve been talking about big ideas all this time, these are all friends of mine and any of them would be better than Obama. Paul: Maybe the media is messing this whole thing up. And when we disagree, we should say so. Bachmann: Obligatory reference to something Reagan said in 1980. Huntsman: Reagan said “Debate is good, it must be respectful and it must be rigorous.” These debates will allow us to defeat Barack Obama.
And with that, the debate ended.