9.59 pm. Romney is the clear leader here – head and shoulders above the rest. Bachmann wins the expectations game. Cain wasn't outstanding or novel enough to stand out. Pawlenty was just dreadful – failing on almost every level. Gingrich was incoherent and nasty. Santorum was his usual doctrinaire self, and utterly unappealing. Ron Paul had his moments, but the novelty is wearing thin.
This was a very very very premature event. But it will cement Romney's solidifying position as the leader of the pack – and reveal how few of the people on this stage will be much of a danger to him. But he does still come across as pandery. The Bruins line? Seriously? Oh well.
9.54 pm. T-Paw: "Iraq is one of the shiniest examples of success in the Middle East." That's as credible as his assessment of Sarah Palin. Romney repeats his weird notion that Obama has "no foreign policy." And he denies that there has been any recovery in growth.
9.52 pm. A reader notes I was a little sweeping in describing the candidates' positions on DADT:
Only Gingrich, Bachmann and Santorum specifically said they would repeal the repeal. Romney said he wouldn't have ended DADT during wartime. Cain and Paul specifically said they would not repeal. The rest of the candidates left the issue of reversing Obama's policy to the side, saying only that they wouldn't have ended DADT.
I appreciate the nuance. I note how weaselly Romney sounds. We are in an unending war now.
9.51 pm. It's so great to hear actual conservatism in this crowd – especially on nation-building and troops in Europe and around the world. But Santorum wants bases everywhere. Santorum has now stated that Obama has "embraced our enemies". That's a stark charge of treason. It's the second most outrageous thing said tonight, after the "Obama Depression."
9.45 pm. Romney seems to have exactly the same position on Afghanistan as Obama. Except he defers to the generals for policy decisions. Ron Paul has no such qualms. T-Paw is still at 9/12. Bachmann is against the Libya war – for good reasons, but why do I suspect she'd be for it if a Republican were the president? Gingrich wants a "fundamental" change in US policy toward the Middle East. But, of course, he proposes nothing.
9.43 pm. Santorum wants to end ethanol subsidies and tariffs! Good for him. There has definitely been a shift toward fiscal sanity in this debate compared with 2000, 2004 or 2008. But one fears it's merely because they can now blame a Democrat for it. And their tax proposals would, of course, vastly worsen the deficit and the debt.
9.40 pm. Gingrich seems to want to take National Guard units out of foreign countries and onto the Mexican border. But again, I've heard no practical proposal to resolve this question, although it was interesting to hear Gingrich of all people inveigh against Manichean politics. Sometimes, the lack of self-awareness creeps up on you by surprise. But they're politicians, I guess.
9.35 pm. Again, I'm reminded of why Ron Paul has his moments. His defense of the Catholic church's defense of illegal immigrants is close to moving. And he got a round of applause for talking of the open-ended interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. So far, there's been no discussion of foreign policy at all. Strange when we are at war in three countries at a time of massive doubt.
9.30 pm. Bachmann dodges the question on banning abortion for rape and incest victims.
9.20 pm. Gay rights. Bachmann takes a state-rights position. Romney, Santorum, Bachmann, and Gingrich support reviving the Federal Marriage Amendment. That is the most extreme anti-gay position imaginable: writing into the federal Constitution discrimination against gays. If the GOP has mellowed, I see no evidence on it. They all also seem to favor reinstating Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Again, that's the position of a small minority of Americans – and deeply disrupting to the military. It's unanimous on the stage tonight. Again: not a single kind, thoughtful or empathetic remark about the plight of gay servicemembers, even as they risk their lives for us.
9.15 pm. Some rough impressions. Ron Paul? The schtick is wearing thin. Pawlenty? Somewhat lost. Gingrich? Petulent and extremist. Cain? Charming but not serious. Romney? Very polished and authoritative. Santorum? Tight-assed. Bachmann? Compelling, more intelligent than Palin, but still too far to the extreme to appeal to the middle.
9.12 pm. T-Paw offers a view that there should be no restraint on religion in policy-making and argument in public life. Santorum sets up a straw man in saying that secular ideas rooted in faith should be excluded from public debate. Paul has a solid answer. Cain doubles down on saying that he cannot tell if any American Muslim would try to kill us – and is getting tied up in knots by King.
Romney sounds remarkably sane and, yes, American: especially on the idiotic notion of Sharia law in US courts. On that question alone, of demagoguing American Muslims, Romney again stands apart. Gingrich, in contrast, explicitly wants a new era of McCarthyism on Islam, citing one naturalized Jihadist as possibly typical of many American Muslims. He even cites the anti-Communist crusade. It seems as if Newt is trying to re-establish his bona fides as a Republican firebrand. Ugh.
9.10 pm. Romney just gave the strongest response of the night on spending and the debt ceiling: on Obama's profound weakness on spending cuts. I think he's emerging tonight as easily the most plausible candidate. Bachmann seems much less responsible and a little scary.
9.04 pm. Cain is onto the Chile experiment as a solution to social security, which was based on investing in the stock market. Britain back-tracked on this policy. I cannot imagine that after the market crash of 2007 and the previous bubbles that many people will be prepared to give up social security for stocks.
9.01 pm. Santorum had a strong response on Medicare – rhetorically, at least. The IPAB demonization is, in my view, based on the truth. The trouble is: no one has offered a market-based way to control costs as effectively as a potentially powerful IPAB (right now, of course, it's toothless).
9.00 pm. Ron Paul talks healthcare costs and the insolvency of Medicare. To his extraordinary credit, he argues that massive defense cuts will be needed if Medicare is going to be saved. T-Paw says Obama is missing on the question of healthcare costs. But doesn't Obamacare include exactly the cost-control measures T-Paw just mentioned? There is a kind of fact-free description of the Obama administration here. Romney alone sounds slightly more reasonable than the rest.
8.55 pm. While I'm at it, check out the Beast live-chat here with John Avlon and Howie Kurtz.
8.52 pm. Romney promotes drastic cuts in spending. Along with tax cuts. But what would he cut? Again, I've heard nothing tonight about specifics of spending cuts. But Newt scores with American Idol. Memories of Tom DeLay or Bristol Palin?
8.50 pm. On the housing slump, T-Paw only sees government as the problem. He doesn't cite credit default swaps or irresponsible banks. Sure, Freddie and Fannie deserve their share of blame. But seriously – too much regulation was the problem? Againa, I hear no concrete policy proposals.
8.49 pm. Gingrich rises to the occasion in attacking NASA. He was given an easy patriotic pander and refused. I give him points for that.
8.48 pm. Santorum wanted the biggest banks to fail and the big auto companies to fail. I see the moral hazard issue here – but really? Letting the entire financial system go belly-up along with the auto industry? Bachmann doubles down.
8.43 pm. TARP! Cain now thinks GM should have been allowed to fail. Romney actually attacks Bush for agreeing with Obama. I'm not sure what that $17 billion wasted means. Romney then refuses to acknowledge he was wrong in predicting the bailout would destroy the car companies.
8.42 pm. Bachmann has Christmas with Elvis on her iPod. I just threw up a little in my mouth.
8.40 pm. Leno or Conan? Can you imagine anyone up there favoring Conan?
8.30 pm. How to get manufacturing jobs. Ron Paul blames the Fed again! Pawlenty wants some version of protectionism – and repeal of Obamacare. Bachmann wants tax cuts and abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. Santorum wants to cut capital gains to zero for manufacturing. Why not zero for every tax? I have heard so much about tax cuts tonight; I haven't heard any proposal to have more tax cuts and cut the deficit. None of this adds up – unless entitlements are shredded and defense cut massively.
It feels to me as if these Republicans keep replaying Reagan, even though Reagan's core legacy is still in place and taxes are at historic lows. The emptiness of the GOP policy arsenal is pretty striking.
8.25 pm. Cain plays the classic businessman-Perot style gambit. Just get some experts together, come up with a plan and implement it. It's as if he has no idea how the American political system works.
8.23 pm. A questioner seeks balance. Santorum gets the pitch! Then he backs welfare reform – a live issue in the mid-1990s. Bachmann blames the media for the notion that the Tea Party is unbalanced in its approach to governing. And she goes for it: "President Obama is a one-term president." Yay! She's a good performer, seems whip-smart, even though her policy content right now is zero.
8.21 pm. Gingrich is now against all mandates. Is that new? I have a hard time keeping track.
8.18 pm. Pawlenty is going wobbly on Romneycare. Doesn't look strong. Romney glides right past T-Paw and pitches himself as the nominee already. Advantage Romney.
8.15 pm. We're on healthcare. Bachmann is on a roll. She's blaming Obama for cutting Medicare! No one has yet proposed a single measure to restrain costs or insure the uninsured. Not a single measure.
8.13 pm. Ron Paul cannot even credit the big tax cuts in the Obama stimulus?
8.05 pm. Good question: how do you help job creation?
Cain: cut taxes. Santorum: repeal Obamacare; drill for oil. Pawlenty: cut taxes – and then an attack on Obama's view of American exceptionalism. No answer on why jobs did not grow after Bush cut taxes. Romney claims that Obama made the recession worse. No explanation of how. Then Romney says that Obama backed card check and cap and trade. That's untrue. Gingrich is reminiscing about Reagan. And he wants to abolish re-regulation of Wall Street! Bachmann backs new de-regulation of Wall Street. This is getting surreal.
After a deep recession precipitated by Wall Street speculation, the GOP wants to return to the status quo ante.
8.05 pm. Pawlenty's a husband and a "neighbor". Impressive stuff.
8.03 pm. Gingrich calls the recession that ended over a year ago the "Obama Depression."
7.57 pm. No one is better at pure, grade-A conventional wisdom than David Gergen. When was the last time he surprised you with anything he said?
(Photo: Michelle Bachmann supporters hold a sign outside the venue for the Republican presidential primary debate June 13, 2011 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. This is the first debate for the GOP contenders in the 'First in the Nation' primary state of New Hampshire. By Darren McCollester/Getty Images.)