Feb 22 Republican Debate Liveblog & Recap

Here we go, everyone… the biggest (and possibly last) Republican debate. Keep hitting refresh as we bring you up-to-the-minute coverage and a recap.

Hello, all – did you miss the Republican debate in Arizona? Well… you didn’t miss much. But here, for your water-cooler enjoyment, is a recap, a set of candidate rankings, and the now-concluded liveblog.


What a shitshow.

Forgive the language, but there’s no better way to describe this debate, in which a smirking and occasionally downright gloating Mitt Romney took Rick Santorum to the cleaners, bought him a new suit by bribing the man behind the counter, then threw red wine on it and spit on his tie for good measure. There will be three “points” and one “meta-narrative” that emerge from this debate. In addition, there will be a media-narrative.

Point One: Rick Santorum is a joke and the fact that he taken so seriously these past few weeks is the strongest indicator yet that the Republican field is weak.

Point Two: Newt Gingrich is going to enjoy yet another damn renaissance but it really is too late in the game this time.

Point Three: Mitt Romney is a rather off-putting guy when he goes strikingly negative.

Meta-Narrative: A lot of people (including me) were very wrong about how it would actually happen, but very few people were wrong about the end result: “After much bitter recrimination and gnashing of far-right teeth, Mitt Romney will be the nominee.” And then he will lose to Barack Obama because the economy will be “just good enough” and nobody seriously believes Obama has been a bad foreign policy president except on the far left and right, both of whom will not vote anyway out of apathy.

Media-narrative: You had a debate in Arizona and you didn’t ask about foreclosures? Or spend more than cursory moments on tax/entitlement reform? There shouldn’t be any more debates after this. Take the “debate license” away.


1. Romney. Just like in the Perry-era debates, Romney won this by default, forcing his opponents to look even less palatable than he does. Romney gave the kind of scorched-earth firepower to Santorum that he used to bury the similarly-underprepared Texas governor, which all-but assured Romney will be the nominee, but the damage has been done. He came across as a barely-contained vessel of opposition research and bitterness. Just like in those debates with Rick Perry, he made it clear that he had the steel not to lose this nomination, but also made several unforced errors (conceding that “RomneyCare” is a thing and ducking just how much it was related to Obama’s plan) and, at the tail end, a fairly major gaffe to serve as a capstone to his night in outright refusing to answer the last question of the debate, declaring imperiously that he will just say whatever.

It’s clear that this primary and the improving economy has turned Romney into damaged goods, shouting his own campaign slogan (“restore America’s future”) like it’s “fired up, ready to go.” But he’s going to be the nominee. The question is what Republicans do with him. The answer is probably to abandon him as the Democrats did with Mondale and wait for 2016, hoping they don’t pull out a Dukakis in the process.

2. Gingrich. To quote Gingrich’s favorite non-founding father, there you go again. The guy who has had nothing left to play for so many times in this race went right back to the playbook he’s used in those situations and performed very well in front of this rowdy (and decidedly pro-Romney) crowd. He gave platitudes. He offered “simple solutions.” He attacked Obama so hard that at one point (on foreign policy) the crowd wouldn’t even go along with him, murmuring in shocked disapproval at just how far to the right this contest had dragged the party. In short, it was Gingrich in his ascendant tidal cycle. The problem is, he has two weeks to Super Tuesday and will face unrelenting press coverage of Romney’s likely wins in Arizona and Michigan. There’s not enough time to pull off yet another revival. The baggage is packed on the Romney-plane.

3. Paul. Ron Paul had a very good night. His best moments came in his decision to finally stick a needle in the eye of a front-runner (Rick Santorum), and his answers on Iran were much better than when both Santorum and Bachmann played him for a fool in front of red-meat crowds. If he had actually won a primary or caucus at some point in the last contests, you’d want to give him credit for a bounce. But it won’t happen. He’s a libertarian gadfly at this point, and he served a twisted purpose well: making sure the party’s faithful candidate (Mitt Romney, a guy who he personally gets along with) will get the nomination. Paul played a cackling foil the entire night, at times making fun of Santorum with half-apologies as he buried the former Senator with his party-line voting record.

William Jennings Bryan, an electrifying Democratic insurgent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” but I guess Ron Paul can do that to the George W. Bush-era Republican “conservatives” in his attempt to get back to the days before Brown v. Board.

4. Santorum. There’s no question that for however vulpine (or at times downright vulturous) Mitt Romney seemed this evening with his insincere grin, Rick Santorum seemed exactly like the animal he is: a petulant, whiny, toad of a former Republican Senator in the heyday Bush years, now running from his record without success. By the second half, the daisy-cutter bombs Romney dropped on his attempts to differentiate himself from the pack left Santorum looking down at the table as he answered questions. Ron Paul, sitting next to him, sliced apart Santorum’s one bold claim of the night (that he didn’t support government spending to correct social ills) by mocking Santorum’s support for “Title XX” abstinence-only spending in Congress, wasting, as Paul saw it, “millions” of dollars. He had one nice comeback at the very end, talking about his being able to “do a lot with a little” in the Rust Belt during the general election, but the two hours that preceded it made it clear that he was a deflated promise.

As noted less metaphorically in the recap, Santorum’s Cinderella story is a little bit more of a twisted fairy tale, one that probably involved Republican voters kissing every toad they could find in the desperate hopes that it would turn into a beautiful prince and save them from the boring, safe, local businessman Mitt Romney and his offer of marriage into regional discontent and irrelevance. But sometimes a frog is just a frog. And sometimes Republicans just have to settle for insincere Mitt Romney, and wait until 2016.

LIVEBLOG Well, folks, we’ve been through so many of these, it can’t hurt to have just… one… more… Republican… debate. The twentieth, in fact. Welcome to our TFT liveblog. Stay tuned… it promises to be wild.

8:06: preliminaries. National anthem. Snazzy intro. The candidates get to sit in rolly chairs this time, as opposed to at podiums. They’re as tired as we are!

8:08 Ron Paul’s introduction gets stunned silence, then laughter, then boos with suspiciously loud cheers. Santorum shrugs, then mentions gas prices. Romney wants to “restore America’s promise” that’s been “broken by this President,” and gets great applause, then name-checks George Costanza! Gingrich says we can look forward to $2.50 gasoline.

8:09 First question is a good one – what will you do to cut debt? Santorum says he’ll cut $5 trillion in 5 years, then immediately says he wants to differentiate himself. Then he says “cut ObamaCare,” gets the cheap applause, then says there’s bigger issues, like entitlement. Uh, then he says Defense spending was 60% when he was born and is… 17% now? Does he ignore the emergency budget or what? Then he says “poverty is not a disability” and says his MediCare program would involve a jobs requirement, and even dings the Paul Ryan plan! Dangerous… that caused Newt’s first collapse.

8:12 Romney, offered a chance to hit Santorum, does, on raising the debt ceiling. Then he pivots to the audience member’s question, talking about his plans, getting very wonky: cut non-vital programs, devolve programs to the states, and cut government jobs. Gets a lot of applause… he’s in friendly territory in Arizona.

8:15 Santorum and Romney mix it up a bit, but Romney immediately gets strident even as Santorum seems to try and moderate himself. That’s a Florida-era Gingrich-level mistake…

8:16 Speaking of Gingrich, there he is. And, uh, he’s playing the Perry game, pivoting heavily to energy, but not without a bizarre visit to “what would Alexander Hamilton do”? Oh, and he name-checks Perry! How nice. He’s headed in the same direction if he doesn’t give better answers than that…

8:18 Haha, oh my lord, Ron Paul with the early line of the night:

Q (paraphrased): You accuse Senator Santorum in your ad of being a “fake.” Why?
Paul: Because he’s a fake!
Santorum: Unreal, Ron… unreal.
Paul: Well, congratulations.

Ron Paul goes on to say that Santorum is now running to repeal things he voted for (citing No Child Left Behind). He goes on laughing and good-naturedly taking Santorum the hell down.

8:20 Santorum gives a pretty decent response, talking about his ratings as a fiscal conservative during his time in the Senate, but Paul comes right back after him, calling that a “cop-out” because ratings are in relation to a Senate that is not in line with the beliefs he’s talking about at all.

8:22 Romney gives a nice answer and keeps on pivoting back to his record, which many people have been telling him to back off from.

8:25 Gingrich, after a slow start, gets revved up, talking about how it’s “just stupid” to say that the U.S. can’t control the border and taking “steps towards a less expensive future” by “modernizing” government. Gets some warm applause. Now he’s back in the “nostalgia for old Gingrich” era circa September.

8:27 Rick Santorum, asked about “good earmarks and bad earmarks,” gives a very stumbling response and gets… tepid querelous noise. Romney smells blood. Pounce! Almost too eagerly, he says he’d ban earmarks, tosses off that Santorum “voted for the Bridge to Nowhere.” Then he repeats it, only even better, saying “while I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere.”

8:29 Now they’re all (except Paul) getting into it! Romney snaps at Santorum over this issue, and gives him this vulpine smile, and Santorum really struggles to respond. Romney then gets into trouble by mentioning “6,000 earmarks” during the Gingrich years, and “that’s not a bad thing, I’m just saying.” Then Santorum tries the same trick with Paul, calling him one of the “most prolific earmarkers,” but gets booed much more than Romney. He looked goofy and alone, even as Romney smirks triumphantly. Gingrich gives a good capstone, Paul tosses in some wonky material about earmarks, but the winner there was Romney.

8:37 Oh boy. Santorum gets a question about the auto bailouts, and talks about how Romney’s position was “inconsistent.” Romney snaps “nice try. Now let’s look at the facts.” Gives a long, leisurely answer. Gets great applause in discussing his “managed bankruptcy” strategy. Santorum’s response is flabby, focused on an issue where Romney agreed with him (the post-9/11 airline bailout). Bad news.

8:41 Oh, there you are, Newt! As Santorum flags, Gingrich makes the point that foreign-run companies outside of Michigan were actually doing okay. Nice point, and his statement that “it’s simple” makes it a good sound-byte.

First Commercial Break: Pity Rick Santorum, who clearly cannot handle the glow of the spotlight. He was much better as a spoiler in the Gingrich-Romney pile-ons. Now he just looks adrift without anyone to pile on to. On the other hand, Romney is behaving borderline viciously to him. We’ll see if that pushes him back into “$10,000 bet” gaffe territory.

8:47 Question: “do you believe in birth control and why?” Gets sustained booing from the audience! Gingrich says “nobody asked Barack Obama why he was in favor of infanticide.” Romney snarls about how Obama is “assaulting religious liberty,” but even he can’t get out the red meat from Obama’s “retreat” in which he said that insurers, not the churches, would have to provide contraception. It’ll play well enough to the base.

8:50 Santorum gives his first real strong response of the night, talking about how he doesn’t want to shy away because “the family is being fractured” and says he doesn’t want government programs to fix the problem.

8:52 Paul follows-up strong, comparing contraception to “guns don’t kill people, people do,” getting applause.

8:55 Question to Romney: did you force Catholic Hospitals to provide the morning after pill, as Gingrich says? Romney says: nope, absolutely not, goes on a rant about his time there. Gingrich’s response: “when you centralize [in the government], you move towards tyranny,” and he says that’s true of “Obamacare or Romneycare.”

8:59 Ron Paul takes an opportunity to thwack Rick Santorum for voting for Planned Parenthood. Santorum gives the traditional senator’s answer: it was part of an omnibus bill, blah blah blah… then he says he voted for something called “Title XX,” which would’ve funded abstinence education. Then, it all goes to hell…

9:03 …because at that point Paul says “I don’t want to fund abstinence… I don’t want to fund anything!” He basically exposes Santorum’s hypocrisy over him not wanting to spend money on social issues. 9:05 There was a huge, huge, huge fight over “RomneyCare,” at which Santorum got creamed. Romney played the “you endorsed me, you little man” card, then snarled that he endorsed Arlen Specter, who switched parties and provided the crucial vote on ObamaCare. And Santorum gives an okay answer, but the damage was really done. Romney keeps on hitting him, and Santorum just looks like a fool.

9:09 Newt, simultaneously playing “sage old man” and “joker” as he did early on in the race, asked about illegal immigration and the “double fence” along the border, noting that Perry doesn’t support a single thirty-foot fence. Gingrich notes: uh, he’s in favor of two fences. Laughter!

9:12 More immigration etc etc etc, but not a lot of blood. Romney also has a good answer, Santorum has a good answer about not asking for eVerify for homeowners, but he’s now looking away from the camera in an awkward fashion. He knows he’s very likely already lost this debate.

Second Commercial Break: Butchery night for Santorum out there. Will “friendly, wisecracking Newt” be able to stage his last comeback, or is it truly Romney Time at last?

9:20 Describe yourselves in one word.

Paul: Consistent.
Santorum: Courage.
Romney: Resolute.
Gingrich: Cheerful. (gets laughs.)

Note that three out of the four candidates picked adjectives, and Santorum picked a noun.

9:22 Question on women in the military. Romney says he’s all for their current roles, but then pivots to his stump speech, saying, quite strangely, that “the world is not safer.” Do people actually believe that?

9:24 Gingrich says “this President is the most dangerous on national security.” What? Again, this is not going to play well in the general.

9:25 Ron Paul name-checks Just War Theory! Somewhere, Saint Augustine, patron saint of brewers, takes a drink. Santorum doesn’t do much of anything and shuffles his feet when asked about his own position on women in the military.

9:27 Question on Iran. Ugh. Great. Even with the Joint Chiefs saying no to an attack, Gingrich makes a big ol’ Holocaust reference and says go for it. But he also says “I’m inclined to believe dictators.” Great copy!

9:29 Romney gets to get his screaming-mad talking points about Iran through. Says that if Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. Oh lord.

9:30 Santorum says he agrees with Romney’s message, but that the person to deliver that method is him. Gets a good line in: “you want to know about foreign policy, see what position Joe Biden takes, then take the opposite position.”

9:34 Ron Paul, realizing he got nailed the last time this came up, makes a good point: we did the sanctions thing with Castro, and he’s still there fifty years later.

9:36 Rick Santorum: “Syria and Iran is an axis…” AN AXIS OF WHAT, RICK!? GO AHEAD, SAY IT. AN AXIS OF EVIL, RIGHT? He goes on to say “we need a new president, or we’re going to have a cataclysmic situation.” -George W. Bush

9:37 Gingrich plays the Perry card: do local energy! Energyyyyyyy. The lifeblood of a campaign on fumes. Of course, Gingrich sells it much better than Perry. Oh, and he brings up “covertly,” as in “convertly destroy the Assad regime.” Wait, he says that the Obama administration is such that “the only way you can be safe is if you’re our enemy.” The audience murmurs unhappily, then applauds as if there’s nothing else to do. BARACK OBAMA GAVE THE ORDER THAT KILLED OSAMA BIN-LADEN, YOU IDIOT, they seem to be shouting. WE WILL LOSE IF YOU KEEP THAT SHIT UP.

9:42 Rick Santorum, asked about No Child Left Behind, says he “voted for that… it was against the principles that I believed in.” Gets laughingly booed. Says he “took one for the team.” Gets booed. He says “politics is a team sport, folks.” Gets booed again. Then gets some rewarding applause for talking about how he home-schools his seven children.

9:43 Romney talks about enforcing No Child Left Behind principles. He talks about MA’s great school program etc etc etc. President Bush has been mentioned more times tonight than in the past twenty debates combined, I’m willing to bet.

9:46 Gingrich gives a nice copy-chewing answer about how we need a “fundamental rethinking from the ground up” in education, fighting unions etc. If that winds up being his closer, get ready for an umpteenth GINGRICH COMEBACK PARTY.

9:47 Aww, Ron Paul jokes about Gingrich not going far enough, then totally buries Rick Santorum, saying “it’s a team sport, but that’s what’s wrong with Washington.” Gets huge applause. Nail in coffin for Rick Santorum.

Third Commercial Break: Nice work, Ron Paul. You killed Santorum. Hilarious.

9:53 Here we go, final arguments. What’s something you want the voters to know to correct a misconception?

Paul: The misconception that I can’t win.
Gingrich: That the work I did wasn’t hard.
Romney: Gets interrupted by King when he tries to go into his stump speech, then snaps “you get to ask the questions you want, and I get to give the answers I want.” Gets credulous laughs… is that the Romney gaffe we were waiting for?!
Santorum: the misconception that he can’t beat Barack Obama, because he thinks he’ll run much stronger as opposed to in a primary where he’s getting outspent… he thinks he’ll be able to “do a lot with a little” in defeating the massive Obama campaign war chest. By contrast, a great closing statement, but way too little, way too late.

And that’s it! Thanks very much for reading.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on ...read more


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