It begins at 9 p.m. ET on the people's network, MSNBC. Things to watch out for:
– Will anyone attack John McCain? Anyone? He benefitted in a big way from his early collapse, which filled Huck, Mitt, and the rest with a false sense of confidence that let them pay McCain compliments and cancel (or simply not develop) anti-McCain lines of attack.
– Does Huckabee have a Plan B? His substance-free surge to frontrunner status worked pretty damn well, but part of the plan was winning South Carolina, and that didn't work. He's seemed awfully airheaded and unprepared in recent debates. Can he surprise people enough to win this thing and stay viable for the Southern primaries?
– Will Ron Paul attack anyone? His campaign has tried to start fights on economics (with the field) and Iraq (with McCain), but no one has taken the bait and Paul himself hasn't seemed comfortable doing so.
9:03: Romney gets the first question, on stimulus: He's miffed that the president's stimulus package doesn't include a permanent tax cut. (Do I misunderstand what a stimulus is?) He doesn't slip up, though: Tossing him a question about economic incentives is like tossing scraps to a sow. "Give the money back to consumers!" I feel pretty comfortable about my sow metaphor.
9:05: McCain sings the gospel of Grover Norquist: Get spending down and we won't have crises this big. (I hate the Gravinas Island bridge as much as anybody but I don't blame that sort of stuff for our current problem.)
9:07: Giuliani: "This package, for what it does, is ok."
9:09: Aaaand here comes Russert with the sillyballs. Check out my out-of-context quote about how McCain doesn't know about economics! "I'm very well-versed in economics. I was there at the Reagan Revolution." He's very well-versed in non sequitors, too. Did he vote for the Dole correction of the tax cuts? I'm reasonably sure he did.
9:11: Mike Huckabee will build us out of our problems with "American steel, American concrete!"
9:12: He comes out boldly against traffic. "We've done nothing about it." This seems to require a follow-up. Is he for a national rail system? A big toll road-building project? Public? Private?
9:14: Americans need a president with the private sector "in his DNA," Romney says, subtling reminding voters that he is carbon-based.
9:16: Brian Williams respectfully asks Paul if the government has any role stimulating the economy. Yes, he says, but not interfering with the market rate of interest. "I was one of three people who voted against Sarbanes-Oxley. I knew that would be a problem."
9:19: As Giuliani talks about princes, I realize Romney's answer about "Taxachusetts" was really bad stuff for a general election: He bragged that he made life easier for business while raising fees for, you know, people. Easy to see a Democrat pulping him over his Massachusetts record.
9:22: McCain on why voters should trust Republicans over Democrats on the economy: "We fucked it up. But I won't!"
9:23: Huckabee's jokes don't work as well when there are fewer doughy white men onstage to laugh with him. Pressed for details, he makes the case against Reaganomics.
9:26: Credit to Romney for saying attacking the Bridge to Nowhere is "easy," and a smokescreen for avoiding crushing economic problems like entitlement spending.
9:28: Normally I'd advise against candidates flopping their wrists on live TV, but I dug Ron Paul's pantomime about his years voting against, uh, everything: "I was waving the flag, saying slow up, slow up!"
9:29: Questioner: "Please don't speak in generalities." McCain: "OK, bitch. How 'bout some cliches?"
9:30: Brian Williams dismisses McCain's claim that "no general" doubts the incredible, never-ending power of the surge by quoting Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret).
9:31: How will Romney build up our military? Simple: With bribes.
9:35: We know how this round is going to end up. Everyone one-ups their praise of the war and their own ballsiness for backing it and then…
9:36: …and then Ron Paul says it was bullshit. Huckabee says we owe Bush our thanks. "We didn't find the weapons. Doesn't mean they weren't there!"
9:37: Romney repeats the "invasion was a brilliant success" line, which grows ever more incoherent the further we get from March 2003.
COMMERCIAL BREAK: An unsurprising glut of funeral and insurance ads.
9:43: Romney gets the first chance to ask a question, monologues a bit about China, and throws Giuliani the ball to… monologue about China.
9:45: Although I don't know how we "sell" China energy independence.
9:47: McCain has nothing to fear from Huckabee so he asks him to talk some more about the ridiculous FairTax. Huckabee quotes Dr. Phil. I vomit.
9:48: "Prostitutes, pimps, gamblers… not Republicans." I'm going to skip the obvious jokes here and ask how Uncle Sam will check whether prostitutes are applying the 23 percent sales taxes to their hand jobs.
9:50: I feel like Paul wasted his question, asking McCain what he'd do with the president's working group on markets, but McCain's wistful ramble was sort of entertaining. "I have a process of leadership that is sort of an inclusive one."
9:57: Dull but enlightening stuff about catastrophe insurance. Rudy wants a disaster fund (outside the hall he's been pandering on this), McCain and Mitt want better insurance policies.
9:58: Please, Rudy, don't use the words "nuclear" and "crack through" in the same sentence. The lobby's job is hard enough.
10:01: McCain blows darts at the conservative establish on climate change: "It has to do with violent weather changes as well."
10:06: Giuliani's wasted millions of dollars and blown a 30-point lead to lull opponents into a "false sense of security." Credible!
10:08: McCain fibs all over the place: Most Republicans don't tell exit pollsters they're most worried about Islamic terrorism.
10:11: Romney can united the old Reagan coalition of economic, social, and national security conservatives: "I speak to those three groups." And no one else!
10:13: Pretty sleazy of Russert to ask how much money Romney's spent on the campaign. Romney has a terrible answer: All sorts of people have donated to him but because he's spent so much money he's not beholden to anybody. Pure doubletalk.
10:16: Russert starts off yet another Social Security round by tossing Paul a softball disguised as a hardball: Do you still want to abolish it. He does!
10:19: Huck: "Everybody's talking about what we can't do. What about talking about what we can do?" Who? Who talks about we can't do?
10:21: Romney endorses the b.s. bipartisan committee and rather blithely talks about the retirement age: "Push it out a little bit."
10:24: Rudy panders on immigration, hilariously so: It's ok for Cubans to get special treatment because they vote in Republican primaries they're fleeing the world's evilest dictator!
10:27: Huckabee and McCain fight about their big celebrity endorsements: "I'll send Stallone to take care of Chuck Norris! How about that! Ha, ha!" I was expecting them to whip out their cocks and start jerking, but alas.
10:31: Ecch, Giuliani is the new beneficiary of the "you're going to lose so I can pay you compliments" treatment.
10:33: Hey, let's ask Paul the frigging third party question again! "I wish they would worry about it… keep them on their toes."