AMES, Iowa -- John Dickerson and I are settled in at the third Republican presidential primary debate of the cycle, the first to feature Jon Huntsman. It's also the first to be overshadowed by the absence of Rick Perry.
I'll be livetweeting to some extent here. Other observations will appear on the blog. And so will your comments!
9:03: The first question goes to Bachmann, and she gives the debt ceiling answer she was giving on the trail all week. We'll see how many times she gets away with answering a question with an applause line. My guess: Several.
9:06: Not much adherence to the "no talking points" rule.
9:07: Paul, like Bachmann, was never even considering voting for a debt limit hike. His answer why is a little more predictable, and a lot less glib. "The boom and bust comes from a failed monetary system."
9:10: Herman Cain briefly abandons his Fair Tax fixation to come out for making the Bush tax cuts permanent. That's not actually what he wants! He wants a national sales tax.
9:11: Jon Huntsman doesn't have a detailed plan for the economy because he's too busy leading. Fair enough! Has anyone's presidential campaign economic plan ever been implemented? How many people wasted time on the details of Bill Clinton's middle class tax cut that never happened?
9:14: When I saw Pawlenty on the trail, he told the exact same dinner/lawn joke but saved the "except your house" joke for a state senator.
9:16: The thinking going in was that Pawlenty, having whiffed in the last debate, would go on the attack tonight. The great thinker was right. Standing right next to her, absorbing a nice jab from Chris Wallace, Pawlenty said she had "no record of accomplishment." Which she doesn't -- she opposes, but does not win, and Republican voters don't mind.
9:19: That was a fun exchange, but remember the substance: Pawlenty is right that Bachmann never succeeds in passing anything. Both of those answers sounded freeze-dried, and neither tells voters what they didn't know, but Pawlenty needed an attack to land, and it did.
9:23: Team Bachmann wins the response skirmish as her campaign bursts into the spin room and hands out a two-page brief titled "The Big Government of Tim Pawlenty."
9:28: Gingrich's spat with Chris Wallace just now was unsurprising. His line as the stories mounted was that the "media elite" was out to get him -- this shortly after he stopped being a Fox News contributor. It turns out you can even generate applause from media-bashing if the media outlet in question is Fox News.
9:32: Huntsman says he thought there weren't enough tax cuts in the stimulus. True, but his complaint at the time was also that it needed more immediate infrastructure spending.
9:37: A good point from Cain: Half of his gaffes are misinterpreted jokes. I'd guess they're misinterpreted because reporters didn't know anything about him before he jumped in.
9:40: Romney gets the S&P question and achieves Mach 5 as he dodges it. He says "I cut taxes 19 times, and I didn't raise taxes." Except, well, the S&P pitch mentioned the loophole closures he agreed to, and he raised a bunch of fees.
9:43: The utility of having Tim Pawlenty in this race, for Michele Bachmann to pin all of her troublesome votes on, is only now occuring to me. How much can she get away with, though, without sounding like she doesn't get things done?
9:45: The efficacy of Pawlenty's attack lines here depends on voters understanding the complications of state tax negotiations. They seem simple enough to me. When she says "we need to have a president of the United States who stands firm," and then blames Pawlenty again... well, yes, it reinforces his point.
9:48: Shorter Gingrich: Why aren't you people as smart as I am? The supercommittee is both "dumb" and "stupid." How the "supercommittee" is secret right now is a mystery to me; that's still being negotiated.
9:51: Can we safely say that Pawlenty has completely revised his strategy? With Huntsman in the race, embracing the politeness-or-death strategy, I doubt Pawlenty will ever pull a punch again.
9:53: Romney's argument for health care reform here, that people shouldn't have to pay for those who can afford health care but skip it and clog emergency rooms, is also a very good argument for "Obamacare." This is what Pawlenty was getting at -- it's harder to draw a contrast in 2012 on anything but health care federalism if this is the nominee. That's just not a horribly compelling reason to vote against the guy.
9:56: Santorum' comes out boldly against federalism: Americans have values and "states don't have the right to tramp over those because of the 10th amendment." But his example of states gone amok is... some state may impose mandatory sterilization? Some state may legalize polygamy? Interesting hypotheticals, but that's all they are.
10:03: Given that Perry's campaign will be led by the people who bailed on him, that was a polite answer from Gingrich.
10:07: We return to the Gingrich Libya fooferah, at last, where he seemed to be on all sides of the issue of intervention. "This is a typical example of a gotcha question," he sneers, belittling Fox News specifically for not bringing up the other things he said about Fox, which boil down to an alternative plan he came up with that was never being discussed.
10:11: Huntsman's not really shining here, and I wouldn't attribute that to a lack of fireworks. I'd attribute it to some really high-level glibness. We need a president who understands China who will say... what, exactly, about cyber warfare?
10:14: It's up to Santorum to have the perennial "Ron Paul, seriously, WTF?" moment. (These moments are more likely in Fox News debates.) It has a little less impact when it's not coming from a top-tier candidate; Paul and Giuliani both gained from their spat in 2007; the Santorum-Paul spat is between candidates who will be in the top five of the Ames straw poll.
10:20: Rick Santorum is very worried about the rights of Iranian gays. Just don't let them start sterilizing people.
10:30: Huntsman finally gets interesting when asked why opponents of civil unions -- most Iowa caucus-goers -- are wrong. "I think this country can do a better job on equality." But why are they wrong? "I don't think they're wrong." Wishy-washy, but if the Huntsman strategy is to be the independent voter's last, best hope, it was the right answer.
10:33: Earlier tonight, Pawlenty ruled a Bachmann answer "illogical." Now Paul calls a question about polygamy "so past reality" as to be risible. It's agreed: These candidates need better facts.
10:37: Without Santorum in the race, would any candidate give a rousing defense of prohibiting abortion even in cases of rape? "That child did nothing wrong," he says. "That child is an innocent victim."
10:39: Romney's first line in response to a question about extending unemployment benefits: "We got a lot of people out of work." He ends by endorsing partial privatization of unemployment benefits. That's a dodge done right -- parry, avoid, propose new idea so no one notices the dodge.
10:43: That's two chances Bachmann's got to explain, innaccurately, that S&P lowered its rating for the U.S. because the debt ceiling was raised. Mainstreaming that idea will be one of the few lasting effects of all this.
THE WRAP: It wasn't the stiffest of competitions, but this was the best, most clarifying debate between the Republican candidates.
ROMNEY: I saw confidence bordering on boredom, and it was justified. Romney easily sighed away Tim Pawlenty's two jabs at him, and talked right past him when Pawlenty attacked on health care. Was Romney's health care answer exactly the sort of thing Pawlenty was worried about? Sure. In the meantime, he has survived two debates with no real damage.
CAIN: A sharp performance that doesn't change the fact that Michele Bachmann now has the stronger claim on his voters.
BACHMANN: The best thing that happened to her was the question about whether she'd be "submissive" to her husband if she was president. The boos lasted for an uncomfortably long time; she gamely, sarcastically thanked Byron York for the question. It was yet another moment for her to prove that the media treats her unfairly. And since it was the only question on social issues that was directed to her, she missed, one more time, a chance to respond to the damaging "ex-gay clinic" story.
SANTORUM: As he wrapped, a GOP source with a libertarian outlook sent me a message: "Santorum is everything that's wrong with the Republican Party." That was his goal, to distinguish himself as the social conservative who'll say anything. Insofar as the media takes him seriously, it's for the chance that he becomes the social cons' candidate in the caucuses, and he did himself well on that.
PAWLENTY: This was a brand new candidate, who eased well into the role of a frustrated, just-gotta-say-it critic of Bachmann and Romney.
PAUL: He seemed more surprised than anyone that so much time was being spent on his issues.
HUNTSMAN: He's not even trying to win Iowa, but if there's some Democratic or independent voter there looking for a candidate who's not Ron Paul, there he is. The repeated declarations that he was delivering bold answers were certainly helpful.
GINGRICH: Another Fox News contract may be out of the question, but how about Current?