John Dickerson is LIVE! FROM! MYRTLE BEACH for tonight's debate. My flight to South Carolina doesn't take off for 12 more hours. But there's a miraculous invention called "cable television," and I will use it to watch five Republicans rip chunks out of one another's suits in real time.
What are we looking for? It's a Fox News debate, so there's a good opportunity for Ron Paul to be tied down to the tracks on foreign policy. Newt Gingrich, given every chance, has started to attack Romney; Perry hasn't had many chances to. Expect the Paul-Romney non-aggression pact to continue, even if Bret Baier tries to end it.
9:04: I've come to interpret the Gingrich throat-clear as a political version of Tony Soprano's heavy breathing. The throat gets de-phlegmed, and shots are going to get fired.
9:08: The first thing to fact-check: Romney's claim that Bain Capital's Romney-led investing created 120,000 "gross" jobs. He's said 100,000, and more than 100,000, and "thousands." The creamy nougat center of the Bain attack is the theory that not all of these jobs were created in America.
9:11: If you're not following this, know that the job losses incurred by Bain-acquired companies was not the fault of Bain. "I understand what happens when China cheats," says Romney -- it was unfair competition, not unfair vulture-ism, that killed the jobs.
9:15: Shots fired from Ron Paul, when asked to stop negative ads: "If you're exposing a voting record, it's quite proper." On a minute-long attack against Santorum: "I couldn't get as much in as I should have." Sort of forgotten in the media's hazy coverage of Paul is that he runs, by miles, the most negative, record-based attacks of any campaign.
9:16: Santorum claims that the attacks from Paul are based on "liberal sources" like CREW. And some are. But it's not like the liberal feints in his record are made up. See: His 2006 campaign literature, when he was in a corner trying to win Democrats.
9:20: Interesting Santorum strategy: Trying to score points on Romney by pointing out his hypocrisy on a moral issue that doesn't necessarily play in South Carolina. Santorum proudly defends his vote to restore some felon voting rights, a bill named after Martin Luther King, Jr. "African-Americans are disproportionately represented" as felons, he points out, completely truthfully. African-Americans represent 2 percent of the GOP electorate here. Romney comes off terribly in the exchange, but I don't think it would have gone well for Romney had Santorum not pointed out Massachusetts' own law. Pick your objectionable liberal Republican, South Carolina.
9:22: Oh, Rick Perry's still here! The "y'all insiders are bickerin'!" act was lame when John Edwards used it, and it's especially lame when the issue being discussed isn't actually frivolous!
9:29: Indeed, Rick Perry uttered the words "South Carolina is at war with this federal government." Good thing Buddy Roemer's not onstage, to drag down the serious candidates.
9:42: A question on the ideal tax rate is always going to favor Ron Paul.
9:45: No, you cannot diagram what Romney actually said about his tax returns. He will release them in April, because "he's heard" that it's in line with what people seem to want. And sure, releasing them in April would probably prevent them from coming out until the primary was wrapped up. This was destined to be one of those sack-the-frontrunner debates, and he's not correcting that.
9:50: A bit of a missed opportunity for the camerman, when Paul says "rich white people do not get the death penalty very often" and there's no cut to Mitt Romney.
9:57: Newt emerges from his self-made Occupy trap by striking out against Williams on food stamps and child janitorial work. (It doesn't hurt that the debate audience is wholly on Gingrich's side.)
10:00: The original Joe Klein article is here.
10:04: If Ron Paul was actually on the cusp of becoming the 2012 Republican nominee for president, it might be problematic how Fox News keeps de-boning on foreign policy questions. But he's not. He's just building a liberal-old right coalition in primary and caucus states. And... well, he was still a mess on the Osama bin Laden question, but in this context, he didn't do himself much damage. "I just didn't think they had gone through the process," he explains. And who's the potential Ron Paul voter who bails on him over that?
10:08: Gingrich gets the best soundbite-pander of the night. "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear idea about America’s enemies – kill them." Take that, Battle of New Orleans truthers.
10:29: Santorum's advantage on the retirement plan question -- I've seen him do this on the trail -- is a simple explanation of how the money isn't there to do the transition. This could be a weakness for Gingrich, because when pressed he claims that Lean Six Sigma efficiency reforms would give us all the money we need. But I suppose the election isn't going to turn on this.
10:39: Ron Paul's campaign chooses this moment to launch a new ad:
10:46: The big applause when Romney dreams about an end to Super PACs is an anecdote, yeah, but one of many that show what a farce the system has become. Romney's solution, sort of mentioned then moved on from: No donation limits to campaigns themselves. It's Gingrich's position, too. Under such a system you can imagine the same outline of a fight about ad content. But you wouldn't have this pathetic spectacle of men in their 60s crying that they can't control what their friends are doing on the airwaves.
10:49: Romney hasn't talked to the people running Restore America Now "in months," since they got started with his help. Very reassuring.
CONCLUSIONS: Not sure what the point of letter-grading this thing might be: Everyone went into the debate with a different goal.
Mitt Romney: Intelligence-insultingly bad. These debates are about short fights, message weakness that reporters can pounce on, and moments of confusion. Romney lost a spat with Santorum about voting rights, and dissembled beyond the point of comprehension about his tax returns and the responsibility he might have for what his Super PAC does.
Newt Gingrich: Angry in useful ways. Think about the issues Gingrich made his stands on: Killing people and teaching kids the moral value of cleaning urine and feces out of bathrooms. But hell, the crowd loved it.
Rick Santorum: Better than anyone admits. Santorum never has huge "moments" in debates, but he got to explain his right-to-work stance -- he was wrong -- and reestablish compassionate conservatism. Maybe only one of these things is politically useful.
Rick Perry: Still there. Fine, sure, he managed to get away from his push-button "state's rights!" answer once: He co-opted the Daniel Pearl story for cover when he needed to defend his support for soldiers pissing on dead Taliban. It's increasingly hard to understand how the guy has won so many elections.
Ron Paul: Iconoclast doesn't have to mean incoherent. There is a good debating answer to the question: "Why didn't you want OBL to be killed?" Paul never got there. Every time pundits have expected one of these answers to hurt Paul, he's survived, so I doubt this drives his numbers down much, but given that foreign policy is the wedge that's always going to be used against him, he should get Rand to tutor him on phrasing.