MESA, Ariz. - Let's get ready to argue in alotted segments of time!
Here is what you are missing by not being in the debate hall itself, or not seeing the live feed inside the debate hall: A speech from Gov. Jan Brewer, making an impassioned case for using Arizona's natural resources. "America was built on copper," she said, "and we've got uranium. And we've got forests!" I'm informed that she was referring, cagily, to the debate over exploring for energy in state-protected parks.
8:03: Newt Gingrich's haircut is jarring; it's as if his head has reduced in size as his media coverage has waned.
8:08: Santorum says his debt plan will cut spending by $5 trillion. And by all accounts, it will. By all other accounts, the tax cuts he embeds in the plan (including some cuts for non-wealthy people) keep the long-term deficit problems humming along. I'm guessing no candidate will take a whack at this, because it's not kosher to suggest that tax cuts slash revenue.
8:12: Romney's description of his own fiscal conservative record mentions the Olympics... which, of course, benefited from federal funding, and are not quite an example of private industry creating gold out of lead.
8:17: Our first "whuh-huh?" moment occurs -- surprise! -- with a Ron Paul prompt. He reiterates his ad's claim that Rick Santorum is "a fake." Santorum tugs his sleeve and says "I'm real!" There is no cut to Romney, as he processes what it might mean to be real.
8:23: What Newt Gingrich will show up tonight? Our first answer: Conciliatory Newt. Given a chance to attack Romney's new-new tax cut plan, he says Romney "moved in the right direction." His sharpest criticism of his rivals is that "Ron [Paul] and I are close on the scale of change" they want, implying that the other guys are tinkerers.
8:29: This earmark discussion is fascinating. First of all: It's a pure meta-issue. No Republican Congress will allow earmarks, anyway, and if they did, they would not adding to the size of the overall budget. Second: It only helps Romney, who luckily missed out on ever serving in Congress, and can trap his rivals in a wonderland of pure theory and rhetoric. Third: It's actually pretty good look at how earmarks work. Romney accidentally delivered a master class on how the process should play out.
8:35: The return of "nice try," the "you're such an idiot" zinger that Romney deployed in Orlando to humiliate Rick Perry.
ROUND ONE: Give it to Romney, in full-on Dismiss My Opponents as Fools mode. He successfully baited Santorum, who can not give up on an argument, into talking about earmarks for longer than any human could stand.
8:43: I should have added a "what will the audience boo?" item to the debate pre-game. But "asking about birth control" is a bit predictable.
8:49: Santorum, so very ready for this question, makes one of those steps away from the culture wars that have become more common as he's done better. "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it," he says. "That's what they do." They are liberals. But... no, hang on, hasn't Rick Santorum moved when he could to fix government policy when he sees morality being threatened?
8:58: The late career success of Pat Toomey disguises the fact that he really might have lost a general election in 2004, when John Kerry was carrying Pennsylvania. Still, Santorum is right -- the Specter mistake, as many hackles as it raises in the talk radio listener, says little to nothing about Santorum's own health care politics. Compare Specter's spending record to Santorum's, and you're going somewhere.
9:09: The big takeaway from the immigration round: Romney saying Arizona "could be a model." That plays well enough in Arizona. Among Hispanic groups in other states? Well...
ROUND TWO: Hard to say. Romney set up some bear traps for the future, but Santorum's culture war walkback was his finest moment, rhetorically.
9:19: For history's sake, here are the words the candidates used to define themselves.
Ron Paul: Consistent.
Rick Santorum: Courage.
Mitt Romney: Resolute.
Newt Gingrich: Cheerful.
I have asked Buddy Roemer to complete the set.
9:25: Take note: Nobody (especially Santorum!) wants to answer this question about women in combat. A whole lot of dodging ensues.
9:27: Roemer answers: "How could I possibly outdo Newt's 'cheerful'?" A fair answer.
9:35: ThinkProgress blasts out a response to the goings-on: "ARIZONA AUDIENCE BOOS BIRTH CONTROL DURING GOP DEBATE." Not true! The audience was booing an inconvenient question, not the existence of the product at the heart of the question.
9:38: All of this discussion of the ways America must confront and not contain our enemies reminds me: What happened to the whole budget-balancing thing?
9:43: Romney misses an opportunity. Santorum gives a weak, tortured answer on why he supported No Child Left Behind. "I took one for the team," he said. It's a mile-wide target for someone to hit. And no one hits it!