9.57 pm. The bottom line: Cain trod water, but his plan sank. Santorum excelled at forensics but probably shouldn't be touting his skill at winning swing states when he lost Pennsylvania the last time around by 16 points. Ron Paul outdid himself by bringing up Iran-Contra. Bachmann seems to have one decibel level, around 11, and seems to assume that it is now a given that an incumbent president equally polling his major rivals is already a dead electoral letter. Gingrich made sense on Yucca Mountain, I think. Perry gave petulance a whole new universe of meaning, and was so personal with Romney he lost the crowd. I wonder if Romney will appeal to Western Republicans more than Southern ones. But this felt to me like a settling. On Romney. And learning to like it.
The moment of hope? Romney's defense of no religious litmus tests in American politics. I wish I could be as certain of the sincerity of this if he weren't a Mormon but an evangelical.
9.55 pm. A pause for a Bachmann appreciation. A reader writes:
Dude i listened to it 3 times – Bachmann said 'henious'
Indeed she did. She also seemed to imply that Libya wasn't in Africa.
9.48 pm. Great! We're back with the Rick and Mitt show. The crowd actually seems to like Romney tonight. They're even booing Perry. I don't think Perry has helped himself tonight. And Gingrich has now ensured he won't win: seven three-hour debates with Obama?? I'll need way more Vicodin.
9.46 pm. Santorum is on a roll against Romney. It's been Santorum's best debate so far – scoring real points against Perry and Romney, articulate, clear and consistent. Can't stand him. But fair's fair. His debating skills are under-rated in terms of forensics. If not in charm or persuasiveness.
9.43 pm. Some reader response:
Did I hear Romney say, "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals?" Should we assume that if he weren't running for office, there'd be no problem?
I had the same thought myself, but kind of admired the honesty. Another reader:
Aren't you happy to know that the Israelis are America's greatest ally? How many Brits have died following us around? How many Israelis?
But Israel is God's chosen country, like America. Nothing else matters.
9.40 pm. God bless Ron Paul. He actually calls Ronald Reagan on Iran-contra! God love him. Gingrich does damage control for the Gipper. But this has been a lively debate – going to places we haven't yet been.
9.32 pm. Santorum actually believes that we cannot save "one penny" on defense. When the US sits on a massive continent surrounded by vast seas and spends more than every other country on earth on defense … we are terribly vulnerable to a tin-pot country like Iran.
Perry meanwhile urges defunding the UN because the Palestinians chose the same route the Israelis once did: go to the UN. What's striking to me is not Perry's position as such. You can make a sane argument that the PA should have kept trying to negotiate with Netanyahu. But the sense of anger, outrage, disgust that Perry shows toward the Palestinians is remarkable. It has to be rooted in religion.
And Bachmann defends Israel as a recipient for foreign aid – to great applause. And then demands that Iraq reimburse us for the war we are finally ending. I kid you not.
9.31 pm. And now we're hearing a defense of trading a hostage with terrorists! This really is the party of Reagan, isn't it?
9.29 pm. And again: to hear an attack on how empires destroy democracies at a GOP debate … if you live long enough.
9.20 pm. Santorum makes a case for taking a candidate's "values" seriously, but not their "faith". So you get to tout your faith as a positive but it can never be used as a negative. Gingrich actually says that the US can only be understood as a Christian nation. Perry crumbles.
Romney makes the most elegant, impassioned and detailed critique of sectarianism in politics. I've waited a long time to hear someone say that at a GOP debate. Maybe Perry's ugliness helped bring that about.
9.16 pm. You can see Romney's strategy. Remove from all public consciousness anything that happened before Obama took office, and then blame everything bad since entirely on him. Which is roughly the entire Republican argument: amnesia.
9.12 pm. Cain trumpets Wall Street! And Ron Paul says he's blaming the victims! This is a debate, all right. And Ron Paul sounds far more persuasive to a general audience – and Cain retreats a little.
9.08 pm. Santorum argues against bailing out the banks – and appears to have Perry cornered factually. I'll wait to see what the fact-checkers say. Does anyone understand what would have happened if the entire banking system had gone under? And the notion that after the last five years, markets have proven their ability to self-regulate without a disaster seems from another planet to me. The government did not create a credit default swap.
9.06 pm. A shout-out to my colleagues Howie Kurtz and Lois Romano live-chatting the debate.
9.01 pm. Gingrich stumbles onto sane ground on Yucca Mountain. Paul stays consistent. Romney shamelessly panders. Each at their best in their own ways. Perry, meanwhile, tries to make nice with Romney, perhaps realizing that he's come off as a bit of a douchebag.
9.00 pm. Santorum returns to the old Rove strategy of trying to coopt Hispanics in defense of the family and social conservatism. Ron Paul tries to steer the question to his safe place – which is calling for troops to come home.
8.54 pm. The Romney-Perry spat is as ugly as I've seen in debates of this sort. But Perry's decision to personalize this by calling Romney himself a magnet for illegal immigration seemed to take the nastiness a bit too far. Even this audience balked and booed Perry. You can see how Perry has tried to up his game tonight. He sure seems more animated and aggressive – but there was a manic quality to it, and a brazenness that verged out of control. You don't want a president who doesn't seem fully in control.
And then there was that spat with Anderson. Again, the word that comes to mind is: petulant. A little, brittle man.
8.47 pm. If I were Hispanic, I'd be feeling – how shall I put this? – as if I were not in the room. As a legal immigrant, having spent years and thousands of dollars to become a permanent resident, I find the way that illegal immigrants are being discussed to be dehumanizing and marginalizing. I support a secure border and share the dismay at the federal government's failure. But this is truly horrible. Romney – again already running in the general – senses this and tries to do damage control.
8.42 pm. It's on now. I'm trying to keep up with this nasty, vicious, poisonous flurry between Romney and Perry. I stopped at Perry's "Are you a liar?" Did I hear that right? Petulance doesn't come close to expressing Perry's pique. But Romney doesn't want to be explaining to Americans the difficulties of hiring contractors that don't employ illegal immigrants by mistake or design. Most mow their own lawns, I'd wager.
8.38 pm. Thanks, Anderson! An actual specific result of repealing Obamacare: people with pre-existing conditions can go to hell and if you're 26 and on your parents' insurance policy, tough shit. But Ron Paul cannot address the specifics … and gives us another speech in homage to freedom. Cain takes us back to selling insurance over state lines. Perry blames his state's appalling record on health insurance on the illegal immigrants.
8.31 pm. Gingrich spars with Romney over "big government" and Romney actually pulls it out. And then he makes the argument that Romneycare is a private insurance policy. Which is Obama's defense of the ACA. Once again, I note that no one talks as if access to healthcare was a salient issue. And those who talk about controlling healthcare costs have opposed any attempts to do so.
8.28 pm. And Santorum simply says it: we can't "trust" Romney. And you can tell it stung because Romney lost his cool a little. Santorum is on tonight – and he's scored the first blood of any debate on Romney.
8.25 pm. Perry looks a little desperate. So far, by my count, Obama has engaged in the "destruction" of the US economy and has "blockaded" all attempts at energy independence. I guess a certain hyperbole is acceptable, but the outright lies still sting.
8.22 pm. This has been a bit of a gang bang hit on Herman Cain. You know you're in trouble when Newt Gingrich urges you to go slow. And I suspect it has deflated him a little bit – and Bachmann is doing her best to fill the vacuum.
8.20 pm. Romney elegantly skewers Cain on "apples and oranges". He takes command. He talks about the burden on the "middle class," separating himself from the rest on that point. He's acting as if he's running a general election campaign.
8.12 pm. Bachmann just sounded very screechy. Cain proves again he is incapable of countering an actual argument, and Santorum does an able job of dismembering his plan. And then he veers off into birth-rates. Perry once again says he has a tax plan … that's coming out soon. He really should do debates after he has unveiled plans, don't you think?
8.08 pm. Cain "solves problems for a livin'!" And Mitt had a lot of fun! fun! fun! Perry calls Romney a "conservative of convenience." Gingrich actually says he favors "cooperation" over "class warfare." Only Bachmann's self-introduction had an ounce of charm.
8.06 pm. The national anthem always tells you something: the rooster Perry, Romney making sure to mouth the words, Paul standing with his hand drooped like a wilting flower. And a reader asks the obvious question: why don't they just get it over with and have Ryan Seacrest host this?
8.01 pm. And the American Idolization of these events deepens. Can someone stop the gambling metaphors now please?
7.57 pm. And so as the Vicodin fades after a nap, and the debate prep begins, and Occupy Las Vegas screams "They got bailed out! We go sold out!" I can't hear Gloria or Jon.
I might add that if you were among the few sentient creatures who does not think Doug Schoen is a shameless tool, check this out.
(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty.)