I'm headed off to a D.C. eating and drinking establishment where I'll join supporters of Obama-Biden 2012 and watch the GOP candidates debate. My preview, with advice and sample lines for the contenders, is here. Starting at 8 p.m. ET, I'll be analyzing the goings-on in this space and tweeting as my funnier, more concise alter ego @daveweigel. John Dickerson will rule the Slate homepage after that with his own analysis.
In the meantime, here's Christopher Hitchens discussing Rick Perry's old friend Al Gore.
8:04: Rick Perry's first time at bat goes... perfectly well. He was at unlike Bush as it's genetically possible for him to be, with a happy disarming rebuttal to Brian Williams's charge that Texas has mostly been creating minimum wage jobs. "Actually, the first part of that statement is incorrect."
8:07: And it's Perry with the first jab: "We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts." Also true! Also the attack Democrats have been making!
8:10: Romney's attack on Romney was actually meaner than the one I suggested, even if the substance was similiar -- crediting the success of Perry's state to forces beyond his temporal control. It's... not effective. For starters, Perry had to govern through some periods where conservatives lost clout and it was tougher to get votes, like 2009-2011. And it's not a little whiny.
8:13: A little cognitive dissonance there, as the limitations of time and pre-debate research makes it sound like these Republicans are crediting themselves with their states' good job growth.
8:16: One flaw with the Huntsman grand strategy is that independents like all sorts of things. They like lobbyist-bashing and special interest bashing. Ron Paul loves doing that. I see no reason why an angry independent would be happier with Paul than he was with Huntsman.
8:19: Why won't President Obama talk to Herman Cain, as Gingrich demands? The obvious answer: Racism.
8:23: Like I said, I'm watching this from a bar full of Obama supporters. There are some candidates who reduce them to silence, and some whom they talk over. There is dead silence for Perry, mostly silence for Romney, the same level of din for Bachmann, and chatter over everyone else.
8:25: Bachmann wrestles and defeats a total strawman -- who thinks that any of these candidates would simply issue an executive order and call it a day, instead of pushing for PPACA repeal legislation? Her promise to elect 13 Republican senators is needlessly over the top, because a strong argument can be made that most of the bill, which was passed by reconciliation, can be repealed by reconciliation.
8:29: Newt takes my advice, and belittles the media -- which has been insanely charitable to him, given that he last won an election in 1998.
8:33: With Perry in the race, the rationale for Herman Cain being here has completely evaporated. The same philosophy, but less convincing answers -- with less experience to back them up.
8:38: Ah -- the long-awaited (by which I mean "awaited for two days") Perry-Paul showdown! Perry goes easier than Paul than he could have, because his letter criticized Ronald Reagan's tenure in ways no Republican would dare.
8:45: A mid-speech Ronald Reagan tribute video might actually entice Republicans to stay and sit for Barack Obama's jobs speech.
8:49: For now, Perry elides the Social Security question with a line crafted with care and baked at 400 degrees in a clay oven: "I'm not responsible for Karl any more." But there is now video of Perry calling the promise of Social Security a "monstrous lie." Fantastic for the GOP primary. Untested in a general election since, what, 1964?
8:52: FreedomWorks's Brendan Steinhauser likes Perry's answer, and tweets: "Rick Perry gave a fantastic answer on social security. It sets him apart on entitlements. Good for him." That's a mighty fine noise from a very credible Tea Party group.
8:56: I think you can safely mix a drink or read a chapter of that new James Patterson novel during this Gardisil debate.
9:00: Don't stop Ron Paul, he's rolling. "Don't forget," he says, "9/11 came about because there was too much government." In a very short amount of time, he denounced, as far as I can tell, all government spending on anything, ever.
9:05: Does anyone else have incredible difficulty recalling what Huntsman says right after he's done saying it? His answers are Obamaesque, vaporous, which is partly a function of the fact that he's not being asked to respond to anyone.
9:09: In 2007, back when voters were actually somewhat interested in immigration, Barack Obama was very good at deflecting questions about it by blaming the Bush administration for fumbling on the border. Which is what Perry just did, on an issue that turns some Republicans into xenophobe lookalikes. Democrats should be getting cold sweats right now.
9:14: Bachmann's habit of leaning on campaign trail anecdotes gets a little strange. Her visit with Cubans at the Bay of Pigs museum tells her... what, exactly, about what an entirely different community of Hispanic voters think about immigration?
9:16: This is the banner image of the email Romney's campaign is sending out to attack Perry.
9:18: I'm suddenly worried about the border fence keeping us in. Good work, Ron Paul.
9:23: Romney's new economic plan has him endorsing cut, cap, and balance. But it was Perry who got to refill his Tea Party credit card by saying he supported it.
9:27: Huntsman regains his footing by taking a sort of lame question about whether we're safer after 9/11 and using it to summarize his (very popular!) America First foreign policy.
9:30: By contrast, Perry doesn't have a concise or credible follow-through on his "philosophical statement" about war and intervention. His first pointless, meandering answer all night.
9:35: Huntsman shies away from naming who, exactly, is anti-science. If he wanted to punt, he could have said "Hey, I was talking about Pawlenty."
9:37: Perry wins the enmity of the liberals in this bar with the line "Galileo got out-voted for a spell."
9:43: For an ideas man, Newt Gingrich seems to completely misunderstand the threat of inflation. That said, the reappointment of Ben Bernanke, and the lack of attention to the Fed generally, may go down as the decision that ended the Obama presidency.
9:55: So, what happened? I will assign grades based on how they did for the primary, and how they did for the general.
Mitt Romney: B+ (A-). After some early grappling with Perry, he completely avoided attacks from every other candidate. Ron Paul focused on Perry. Santorum focused on Paul and Huntsman. Romney played the exact same game.
Rick Perry: B+ (C-). A proud reiteration of his view that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme." A jarringly cold statement of support for the death penalty in Texas, one that he walked into at the beckoning of moderators. There is video here that will scare the hell out of Democrats and construct a textbook general election campaign; that same video will delight Republicans. (The economy's rotten enough that I think Perry could run far right and narrowly win anyway.)
Jon Huntsman: D+ (B+). With fairly sympathetic questions, and a much tighter set of responses than he brought at the last debate, he reaffirmed that he will be all things to swing voters, the Republican that Democrats can stand. If I'm a standard Republican primary voter, I hate him with the heat of 1,000 suns.
Ron Paul: B (D+). I'm still stuck on the concept of a fence that could trap Americans inside the country for... some reason. With more time to explore ideas, Paul gets to deliver the best red meat conservative lines and the weirdest discursions. The more independents learn about the latter views, the less adorable he seems.
Michele Bachmann: B- (N/A). Hate to agree with the conventional wisdom, but unless something torpedoes Perry, she's no longer a factor in the race. The mannered efforts to pretend that some congressional battles have given her all the experience she needs to serve are just unbearably weak with three governors onstage.
Herman Cain: C+ (N/A). Just kind of a mess, with a tax plan that he didn't have time to explain fully.
Rick Santorum: B (N/A). What purpose is served when Rick Santorum walks onto this stage? I guess it's a nice comment on neoconservatives that the only guy left who runs on their agenda is an embittered stunt candidate, but it gets old after five or six seconds.
Newt Gingrich: B+ (N/A). He's just fighting for a legacy and the possibility that he'll be remembered fondly by the others when he leaves. He needs to re-establish the political and economic credibility he had before getting into this. By that standard, he did fine, although nothing he said will be particularly relevant to the rest of us.