Has it really only been 23 days? Last time we had a Republican presidential debate, Michele Bachmann was still a candidate, Newt Gingrich was widely considered a front-runner (the first question of that night from moderator Bret Baier included the phrase "Speaker Gingrich….you are now physically at the center of the stage, which means you're at the top of the polls"), and Rick Santorum wasn't even a gleam in David Brooks' eye. Andrew Sullivan had just endorsed Ron Paul (which he would go on to withdraw nine days later), Dr. No was doing well enough in the polls to provoke a flurry of "Iowa won't matter if he wins" commentary, and Gary Johnson was still running for the Republican nomination.
Tonight, in the 14th debate of the GOP presidential scrum (the 15th will take place just 12 hours from now, believe it or not), the candidates will be battling fiercely for second and third place. Mitt Romney, the national front-runner and winner by eight votes in Iowa, is outpolling all comers by more than two to one in the run-up to Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Ron Paul, after netting 21 percent of the vote in Iowa, seems headed for about that same share in the Granite State, which would likely be good enough for second place, an astonishing doubling of his support over 2008. Independent-minded Jon Huntsman has put all his chips down on New Hampshire, and could be done with a disappointing finish. Rick Perry was reportedly out of the campaign, now he's back in, desperate for any rationale to hold onto. Newt Gingrich is competing with Rick Santorum to emerge as the anti-Romney-not-named-Ron-Paul. Panic is in the air. The knives will be out.
So consider this your open thread for the debate. As a palate cleanser, take our GOP candidate quiz, to see which if any of these lugs you line up with. Then read our candidate profiles of Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman. And if you're really nice, there might be some crude live-blogging at this space.
This will likely be the most focused anti-Ron Paul debate we will have seen thus far, so the entertainment value should be higher than usual. Take it away, E.J.!
8:58: In a damning critique of the imperial presidency, ABC's pre-programming involves out-of-shape American shlubs getting pummeled on some contrived, totally pointless obstacle course. Bra-vo, ABC!
9:03: "Stimulus plan that was not as well directed as it should have been," incidentally, is Romneyese for "Whoops! I supported the stimulus, but I need to campaign against it!"
9:05: Rick Santorum thinks Iran is the most important issue that America faces. I'm trying to imagine what it takes to get to that place.
9:06: "By the way" is not the #humblebrag you want to deploy before talking about turning around the Olympics. Not when in the context of seeking the presidency.
9:08: Newt Gingrich, who has spent the debate season campaigning against the press, is now trying to use The New York Times to whine about how sometimes capitalism involves people losing jobs.
9:10: You know, there are other things more relevant to criticize Mitt Romney about than his record in the private sector.
9:13: Paul on Santorum: "He's a big-government person."
9:14: Santorum: "I'm a conservative, not a libertarian. I believe in some government."
9:15: The battles between Santorum and Paul, even before this debate, have been some of the most telling and useful delineations of political philosophy in this campaign.
9:17: Mitt Romney has been the front-runner of this campaign since God knows when, and yet he was not attacked in Iowa, and he's not being attacked now. Very odd.
9:20: Paul is changing the subject to re-attack Santorum. Feels like someone tattooed that on his hand before the debate.
9:21: You know why Huntsman won't win? He puts himself above the fray when the fray isn't a fray. Basic spending philosophy differences are not "insidery gobbledygook."
9:24: Mitt Romney wants to cut government, except for the military and Medicare.
9:26: The biggest threat facing the country right now is a projected reduction in the military budget's spending growth that will never actually happen, according to Rick Perry.
9:28: "Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false." Game on, Gingrich!
9:30: Paul gets his first question ever at a debate about the newsletters, dissembles for 10 seconds, switches pretty quickly and passionately to the Drug War. Also praises Martin Luther King for using "libertarian" methods, not five minutes after saying that he (Paul) doesn't use the word "libertarian," he uses "constitutional"…. The last five minutes have been among the most interesting in Paul's presidential career.
9:34: Ezra Klein: "Ron Paul's newsletters are racist. Ron Paul's answer on the racism of the drug war is excellent. Both these things are true."
9:36: Mike Flynn: "These candidates do know Romney is leading the polls. Might want to, I don't know, um, criticize him or something."
9:37: Philip A. Klein: "I can't believe I'm missing playoff football to watch Ron Paul & Newt Gingrich argue about their military records."
9:38: Byron York: "Was Ron Paul's takedown of Gingrich the most effective debate moment of the whole season?"
9:40: Mitt Romney snatches coherence from the jaws of what was a pretty good answer. But finishes well: "Contraception? It's working just fine. Leave it alone!"
9:42: Dr. Constitution breaks it down, boom.
9:43: Diane Sawyer cracks up saying the word "constitutional." I mean, constitutional, right? Hilarious!
9:44: Let it be recorded that Newt Gingrich is talking, in a presidential debate, about how the "sacrament of marriage" needs to "be protected." Jesus Christ.
9:46: Dave Weigel: "Lots of questions about the Eurozone tonight!"
9:48: You know what, I want everybody to be gay married all night long, right now, but can we STOP ASKING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES WHAT THEY WOULD SAY TO THEIR BEST GAY FRIENDS IN THE LIVING ROOM KTHNXBI.
9:49: Gingrich just had his best moment in a month.
9:51: Katrina vanden Heuvel: "Newt is on a newt-rant about bigotry and anti-Christian bigotry and claims none of it covered by news media. Lost me/But GOP applause/"
9:52: Ron Paul is having his best debate, I think. Seems more calm and comfortable in his skin than usual, even/especially in the tense moments.
9:53: Rick Perry changes the subject back to gay marriage? Complains about Obama's "war on religion"? Go home, weirdo.
9:56: "I don't want to spend another penny on another nation's civil war." Huntsman cuts through his own snark for once.
9:59: Santorum: "We are the weak horse," "America is soft." No wonder the neo-cons are rallying around him.
10:00: TV's Andy Levy: "But should gay Syrians be able to get contraception?"
10:01: Gingrich: "I worked with him in the 1980s on the strategy that defeated the Soviet empire." So he's the one who did it! Thanks, Newt!
10:03: Ron Paul: "Yes, the president is the commander in chief. But he's not the king." Nice.
10:12: So, let me answer everyone's question (why isn't anyone attacking Romney???) with uninformed speculation. This is a weirdo reverse-campaign, which is to say people not named Romney are not running to win, they're running to not be kicked off the island. When it's a race to stave off being thrown off the lifeboat, you look for some fingers to step on. Right now there are basically three slots available—the Romney slot, the Ron Paul slot, and the not-Mitt-who-isn't-Ron-Paul slot. Within that is some worry that Paul himself could end up as the anti-Mitt, and also reshape Republican politics in a way many Republicans find beyond the pale. Also, Mitt's gonna stomp all over New Hampshire on Tuesday.
So this is a battle to get Rick Perry out of the race (I think he resigned halfway through the debate, as I stole from someone on Twitter), get Huntsman out, and fight like hell for the rest of the slots. Then you go after Romney.
10:13: GDP per capita is 50 percent higher than Europe, sez Mitt…but is that true of Western Europe? Also, we're 75 minutes in, and that's the first mention that there's a place called Europe. Maybe they'll get to the Euro crisis by June or so.
10:16: You know, when you work at an organization with Bob Poole, it's awfully hard to listen to politicians talk about "infrastructure" without wanting to throw cats at their faces.
10:17: Santorum: "Our plan puts together a package." And "then we focus on the pillars"! Dude's been reading Thomas Friedman….
10:20: Romney wants to "reign in big government," and in the same paragraph talks about rebuilding the military.
10:22: David Corn: "I know Ron Paul is 76, but Rand is a lot younger. We can expect decades more of this. Decades."
10:24: Huntsman "had a conversation with a guy named Jamie." Sounds like someone's been listening too much to Lou Reed's New York!
10:26: Speaking of which….
10:27: Good evening Mr. Waldheim! Pontiff how are you? And Jesse! Jesse Jackson!
10:29: I kinda like Santorum's weird spasm against using the phrase "middle class." Every debate there comes a moment when I kind of like this person who I find abhorrent.
10:32: Katrina Trinko: "So you can talk about blue collar workers, but not middle class. Got it, Rick."
10:33: Mitt Romney is one of the most consistently effective xenophobes in American politics.
10:36: Greg Gutfeld: "Note: Huntsman actually said, 'Seagull loves back rub.' I looked it up."
10:40: ABC News employs Jake Tapper. Free tip: Next time, use the person in your employ who is actually not horrible at this stuff.
10:44: Aiight, g'night folks. Lou'll take us home: