Posted Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, at 7:59 PM
LAS VEGAS -- I'm safely behind a metal detector, safely within trudging distance to a massive selection of Coke products. Let's do this. Follow me here, post in the comments, or check updates at my Twitter account, @daveweigel.
8:10: Ten minutes in, we have questions.
8:11: Bachmann gets the first question (?), and attacks the Cain 9-9-9 plan on now-familiar grounds: Once Congress gets a new tax "it won't take long for liberal Democrats to raise it." Doesn't that attack just underscore how fantastical the whole concept is? It's been 18 years since Congress raised taxes in a broad-based manner (talking income taxes, not health care taxes).
8:12: Part of Cain's defense of 9-9-9: "It does not raise taxes on those who are making the least." How is this not a fib? It mostly is, but remember that this is a multi-stage plan which ends in a Fair Tax. Under the Fair Tax, the poorest people get a rebate that effectively gives them a zero tax rate.
8:16: One day, President Romney will look back fondly on these debates where everyone went after fantasy plans instead of even trying to attack him.
8:20: Fun fact: Under 9-9-9, there would be a 9 percent tax on apples and on oranges. Eventually, there would be a 27 percent tax on them.
8:24: Boy. In previous weeks, there's been a lot of attention on a few people yelling things or cheering things that most people find offensive. We just heard a lot of people cheer Bachmann's now-standard cry that "everyone should pay" something in income taxes, "even if it's a dollar" -- which is regressive and sort of stupid for a "former tax lawyer" to believe.
8:29: Santorum fulfills his guy-with-nothing-to-lose attack role by getting Romney to say that "three out of four people in Massachusetts" like the health care plan he passed. Romney may be getting overconfident about how the people he has to run against keep imploding or failing to take him down.
8:32: It was amusing, but what was the point of Romney scoring on Gingrich over the invididual mandate? It was true, yes -- it's fun to watch Gingrich actually answer for one of his Big Ideas, instead of moving briskly on and pretentiously attacking everyone else. But why punch down?
ROUND ONE: Of all the candidates, Romney made the most statements that can be used against him later. Cain's ability to defend 9-9-9 by pretending it's better than it is works well, because who wants to actually nail him down? Perry is still awake.
8:40: Rick Perry's attacking Romney on immigration. Sweet Christmas, why? How is a tuition plan for illegal immigrants proof of having "heart," but letting an immigrant make money on a construction job is disqualifying?
8:44: Romney's previous Perry strategy -- laughing at him like he was fed on a diet of lead paint and Gardasil -- was more effective than his current strategy of getting irritated and tell him to shut up.
8:48: We're really going to spend the entire immigration portion of the debate fighting about the fantasy border fence?
8:52: Maybe Romney was just rope-a-doping Perry; the audience bails him out by booing after Perry tries to get even more out of the "you hired illegal immigrants" well.
8:56: Perry's overbriefing is leading to some answers that you need to have paid close attention to in order to understand. This mess that turns into an energy answer, for example -- he refers to a quote Obama made about cap-and-trade in an interview three years ago.
8:59: Santorum's solution for winning Latinos over to the GOP is, basically, to remind them that they're in the same foxhole as Republicans when it comes to disliking gay marriage. Not the most surprising answer tonight.
9:01: Romney, who finished 1st in the 2008 Nevada caucuses, and Paul, who finished 2nd, both give a 10th amendment answer on Yucca Mountain -- i.e., don't send it here.
9:06: This foreclosure answer got off the rails pretty fast. Why throw it to Santorum first, when he's obviously hopeless talking about anything besides gays or how the other candidates are awful.
9:10: Let the record show that only Ron Paul suggested that the problem with TARP was that it wasn't used to bail out homeowners who were getting squeezed by the crisis. Worth noting, too: It was the idea of government doing this for homeowners that got Rick Santelli ranting in February 2009.
ROUND TWO: Romney's really the only candidate comfortable talking about foreclosures -- something that is really hitting voters and people they know, much more than some of the crap we talk about here. What I take away from the round was every non-Romney, non-Paul candidate fumbling.
9:19: The Mormon round. Perry is completely out of sorts. Romney is as home as I've ever seen him.
9:26: An actual Bachmann quote: "He put us in Libya. He is now putting us in Africa." Remember that month when people took her candidacy semi-seriously? I'm really sorry about that.
9:34: An actual Perry quote: "We need to have a serious discussion about defunding the United Nations." Yes, when you think "serious."
9:38: I'm not sure how the republic is served by a lengthy conversation about whether foreign aid should exist at all. Especially if the conversation is mostly given over to the niche candidates.
ROUND THREE: Pretty much a waste of time, yeah?
9:46: Not that it matters, but the big gaping hole in the Santorum electability argument is that his record on economics when he won in the least favorable environment -- in 2000 -- was not that right-wing.
9:50: Cooper just asked Cain if he thought the other candidates should beat him, didn't he? That's helpful.
THE WRAP: I'm heading to the spin room now, but my immediate impression is that Romney was, for the first time, baited into saying a few things that could hurt him. Cain was led back onto his least familiar battlefield, foreign policy. Perry was the best he's been since his first debate: Competent but occasionally incoherent. He tried to overcome the flimsiness of his atatcks by launching them with special fervor.