Live-Blogging The Mesa Debate


9.55 pm. Romney simply refuses to answer an interesting question about the biggest misconception about him. Major fail. Santorum played his best card – that he's the underdog who can do a lot with a little. Gingrich cited his ability to manage Washington. Paul tried to dispel the notion that he cannot do well against Barack Obama.

Maybe I've lost my mind after all these debates, or maybe I secretly want him to win (because he would finally expose all the insanity that has been building in this party and needs venting). But I thought Santorum was on form tonight. My sense is that he will not lose his current momentum after tonight. I didn't feel Newt tonight. Romney doesn't wear well. Paul was great and funny and human.

But there was a winner, it seems to me. He's in the White House.

9.40 pm. Santorum really does seem to be implying that Obama has some kind of secret agenda vis-a-vis Iran. And he pretty obviously would launch a massive war on Iran. We're hearing the kind of language we heard after 9/11. Exactly the same language; exactly the same arguments; exactly the same paranoia.

There seems to be no memory of the Iraq war at all. It never happened. There was no error. There is nothing to explain. And yet they do not seem to realize that that catastrophic war is the reason Barack Obama is president. It's like an etch-a-sketch party. Shake it one election cycle – and the past disappears completely! A reader is more succinct:

Gingrich says he is inclined "to believe dictators." Isn't that the exact logic that got us into Iraq? We believed that they had WMD's basically just because they said they did?

Shhhh. They would have to acknowledge reality. This is a party about ideology, not reality.

9.34 pm. Santorum has no idea that the Iranian Green movement did not want the US president to play into the regime's hands by coopting their cause. He also brings up Satan!

9.30 pm. Newt attacks General Dempsey on the rational international conduct of the Iranian regime. Then Gingrich repeats exactly the same argument used for the Iraq war. Exactly the same. And blames the experts in the military for not "believing" what is apparently obvious. Romney then buys into the Santorum line that Iran wants to use a nuke against the US. He then lies about Obama "opposing" crippling sanctions. Does Romney believe that if he simply says that Obama hasn't placed sanctions on Iran, it will somehow become true?

So that's another bald-faced lie.

9.28 pm. Ron Paul brings up Catholic just war theory, which bars pre-emptive, aggressive war and torture, both of which are backed by the two Catholics.

9.26 pm. The president who destroyed al Qaeda and captured and killed Osama bin Laden is "the most dangerous in the history of America." Yep: that's what Newt just said.

9.20 pm. "Resolute." The perfect meaningless Romney self-description. A reader writes:

I really liked Santorum's style and substance when he responded to Romney on why he supported Arlen Specter. Santorum seems like he has thought stuff through a bit, which lends him confidence. I totally disagree with him on who should be on the Supreme Court, but I like the way he stands up for his worldview.

I think that Santorum and Paul clearly have integrity and that is part of what is making this race interesting. I think that Santorum is actually a better debater than Gingrich. Gingrich knows how to blow hard, and he is willing to appeal to people's baser instincts, but he lacks the sort of rigorous coherence that Santorum has, and over time that starts to become more evident. Gingrich, one senses, would say anything to win a debating point or a short term political boost. Santorum is more principled. People pick up on that kind of stuff and I think it influences how they vote.

9.17 pm. A reader notes one of many ironies in this soul-deadening "debate":

Did you get that? Arizona is doing great on immigration with e-verify, unlike the federal government. E-Verify is a federal program.

Sure is.

9.16 pm. Yep, it looks as if Romney lied. More here. I'll wait for more confirmation before saying so. But if Romney obviously lied on this issue, he's in trouble.

9.13 pm. A reader differs:

Santorum is getting pwned from both sides. Mitt is in full peacock attack mode, while Ron Paul hits Santorum from the purist's side. Mitt may be an asshole, but he's winning this thing big. Which makes me ill, frankly.

9.04 pm. Paul challenges Santorum on government promoting abstinence. Then Santorum uses the weapon Obama gave him: conflating Obamacare with Romneycare. Then Romney really punches back by blaming Santorum for backing Specter thus ensuring Obamacare's passage.

Santorum fights back with a doozy: essentially equating Romney with Dukakis for balancing the state budget as mandated by the constitution; and then pummeling him for taking federal money to underwrite Romneycare. I'd say it was a pretty even mudfight, but Santorum held his own. And that's what's amazing to me: Santorum is emerging as the not-Romney. And they seem on an equal level rhetorically and optically. But if I were a Christianist, Santorum is easily more trustworthy.

In other words: I can't believe that Santorum has gotten this far. But he has.

In general, however, I think this debate has been very, very insidery – especially between Romney and Santorum. I'm not sure any of them has won anyone over tonight.

8.52 pm. Santorum seems to be arguing that active teen sexuality requires us to argue against contraception. Run that by me again? Then he shifts to the issue of the family. He survives. Just. Romney simply denies that Romneycare had any mandated contraception. I guess we'll wait for the fact-check on that. Newt repeats what I assumed to be true. Did Romney just lie?

8.50 pm. Newt calls Obama a baby-killer. Then Romney says there has never been in America an administration more opposed to religious freedom. This from a man whose great grandparents were chased out of the country on purely religious grounds.

8.45 pm. So far, I'd say they're all losing. And now we have yet another ad for a terrorist organization, which is a proxy for the Mossad. But this much seems true to me, simply on optics, as a reader notes:

Rick is looking very presidential tonight, sounds extremely solid and smooth on style, and even on content on the earmarks question. Romney looks like a deer in headlight: "I didn't follow all of that"?

8.40 pm. John King destroys Mitt Romney by citing Bush administration officials on the complete lack of private capital to buy up a bankrupt auto industry on the brink of a global depression. Then you see the candidates pivot to the UAW, where they are more comfortable. The truth is: I opposed the auto bailout but have been proven pretty obviously wrong. And attacking the bipartisan process – begun by Bush and contin ued by Obama – that saved Detroit seems to me to be not so great a political argument.

8.33 pm. Boos, sneers, gotchas … all about earmarks, which is a meaningless isue without a line item veto, which Rick and Mitt agree on. Newt eventually calls Romney on his bullshit. In the end, Ron Paul managed something of a win. But it was a confusing, petty, cat-fight. They all lost. I would have turned off the TV by now if I weren't being paid to keep watching.

8.30 pm. Santorum had a pretty good response on earmarks vis-a-vis Romney. I didn't realize how much federal money Romney got for the Salt Lake Olympics. And then he mentioned someone called Dick Cheney. That's the first time that's happened during the entire debate series.

8.28 pm. Gingrich bored me. He seems as if he is resigned to losing this.

8.25 pm. How can Romney mention his Massachusetts record and not mention healthcare?

8.20 pm. Best line of the night so far: "Because he's a fake." And Ron Paul's fiscal record is pretty hard to beat. He comes off as the outsider again – the really genuine one. Then Santorum says he got a "hero award." He sounds like a boy scout trying to impress a crazy but lovable old uncle by showing him his badges. I give the battle to the crazy old uncle. He's real.

8.15 pm. In the first serious Romney-Santorum spat on taxes and spending, I'd call it a draw. Both were feisty; neither was in any way persuasive, of course. But neither seemed the alpha male.

8.12 pm. Santorum won't cut defense and won't raise revenues. So the entire debt is to be ended by means-testing entitlements. That's a key part of it – but it surely cannot be the only way. And aren't food stamps already means-tested?

8.10 pm. Callista did Ron Paul's hair. Santorum talks economy. Mitt Romney can't stop talking about how he can't stop. Newt is all about low gas prices. We're off!

8.08 pm. As the camera swooshes over the Gingrich lumps and bumps, it ends on Ron Paul's wan limp hand.

8.03 pm. Neither of the Catholics has ash on their forehead.

8.01 pm. Why does this feel more and more like American Idol? The fading franchise? The final four? Does that make me some ersatz Simon Cowell? And then you realize this cannot be American Idol. There are no non-whites anywhere to be seen.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan.)