Live Thread: The Great Republican Think Tank Debate

Here I am, seated next to Foreign Policy’s essential Josh Rogin, ready to watch the Republican candidates figure this all out. Commentary will appear here and on Twitter. Because I’m in the actual debate hall, I’ll spend some time discussing what you’re not seeing on TV.

7:59: Wolf Blitzer greets the audience with some fun stage banter. “When you get home, you know what I’m gonna do – there’s a replay at 11. You might see yourself on television! That’s pretty cool.”

8:45: Obviously, I am having technical dfficulties. I blame Congress, the failed stimulus, my parents, and the Sun. I’ve been using the lull to focus on how the candidates behave.

Gingrich, who enters to the loudest applause, is implacably calm. He takes no notes, not even during long lulls. His interest notably rises when someone seems to be on to something. He’s the first to react when Cain calls Blitzer “Blitz,” holding the podium, eventually breaking up with laughter. When former AEI colleagues speak up from the audience, he smiles with recognition. He grips the podium at almost all times.

Romney, who is getting a shockingly small amount of attention, is even calmer. He doesn’t grip the podium. He keeps one hand in his pocket, and gesticulates with the other – when he looks at other candidates, he swivels as if he’s on a lazy susan. During the break, he ambles offstage, then returns to talk to people in the VIP boxes – he’s joined by Santorum.

Paul has the most bisected cheering session – in the regular audience he gets big cheers, and in the front section where questioners and think tankers are he gets very little. He stares intently and takes notes. When he hears something he dislikes, he animates like a Pixar creation. After Michele Bachmann says we can’t “give Miranda rights to terrorists” he guffaws.

9:20: Back again, with more theatre commentary.

Bachmann focuses on her notepad more than anyone else. She reacts to nothing – she doesn’t even react when Ron Paul riffs on how the real drug war should be against loose prescription drugs. She also is perpetually last to return to the stage after breaks, forever arriving under the 10 second warning.

Huntsman is as studious as Bachmann, but more reactive – his hand inches up whenever Romney says something he disagrees with. (No other rival gets that treatment.)

Perry takes no notes. He’s incredibly alert, having absorbed his lessons way, way later than he needed to. He looks perpetually surprised. When he suggests that Leon Panetta should resign if he hates the defense sequestration, he gets almost no applause, much more murmuring. Why? I think it’s because he said Panetta should resign “if he has any honor,” which is a needless insult to a public servant.

9:46: Insofar as we can read Romney at all, he looked to be relishing the detour on immigration policy. Gingrich has no policy to apologize for, the way Perry did, but he ends up questioning whether it’s “humane” to deport people who got to America then raised families. Again, not as bad as Perry, but something for Bachmann to dig into, something for Romney to take advantage of.

9:54: The last presidential debate in D.C. was between Kennedy and Nixon. Santorum gives us a nice callback: “I’m worried about the spread of socialism.”

9:57: There’s one lonely person applauding when Gingrich worries about the threat posed by EMP.