The Final Republican Presidential Debate of 2011

SIOUX CITY, IA - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. are introduced for the Fox News Channel debate at the Sioux City Convention Center on December 15, 2011 in Sioux City, Iowa. The GOP contenders are in the final stretch of campaigning in Iowa where the January 3rd caucus is the first test the candidates must face before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

SIOUX CITY, Iowa – It’s here. The six candidates competing for Iowa, and their friend Jon Huntsman, will face each other one last time at the Sioux City Convention Center. I’ll keep an open thread going here. John Dickerson will have a full take later, and after that, I will recap what we learned via all of the 26,219 (I’m guessing) GOP showdowns.

What are we watching tonight?

1) Get Gingrich. It’s in absolutely everybody’s interest to bring the speaker down. If you take all of the polls seriously, Gingrich peaked a few days ago and has slipped as Romney and Perry, their Super PACs, and Ron Paul’s surprise insurgency have gone after him on the air. No one put a glove on the guy last weekend.

2) Perry vs. Romney. The governor of Texas is touring the state, 44 cities, betting that he can recover because Republicans resent the media picking candidates for them.

3) Ron Paul. This is a Fox News debate. Fox News moderators have a knack for asking Paul the questions that can alienate Republican voters from him – Israel, third party flirtation, etc. If he’s undamaged tonight, he gets to be one of only two candidates (the other’s Santorum) fighting for Iowa without taking any kind of sustained attack.

9:03: The central narrative of modern Republican politics, the Reagan victory of 1980, is the first place Gingrich goes when asked about electability. “If people said, gosh, electability is the biggest issue,” he says, “they wouldn’t have nominated him.” This was before he cited Sun Tzu.

9:07: This is a first: A historical attack on Gingrich from one of the people who knows him. In this case it’s Rick Santorum, who points out, correctly, that Gingrich left office because he had a “revolt” against him, while conservatives were “knocking down my door” to work with me. Two things left out of this: Santorum became one of the most toxic Republicans in America, losing by 18 points in the 2006 midterms, and … well, it was implied, but the specific reason that Gingrich so lost support with conservatives was that they thought he compromised too much on spending. They think the same as Santorum.

9:11: The “Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.” Perry has made it into the post-debate reel. Highlight reel? I wouldn’t go so far.

9:18: As Reid Wilson reminds us, Gingrich has cited Ronald Reagan (and his own experience working with Reagan) in every answer so far. He needs to tell that story, to remind shaky Republicans that they once took a chance on a divorced guy whom the media called out of date.

9:28: Gingrich’s answer on Freddie Mac cleaves between people “in office” and people like him, former politicians helping build ties between GSEs and members of Congress. “I was a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business.” As the American Spectator’s John Tabin points out, “a business like any other business” is how Tony Sorprano would describe what he did.

9:30: Leave it to Paul to grind the bootheel in. “He has a different definition of the private sector than I do.”

9:33: And Bachmann connects, getting the better of a question that Gingrich has trouble explaining. “You don’t need to fit within the definition of lobbying to be a lobbyist,” she says. Gingrich’s response: Because he was “writing bestselling books, making speeches,” he was “doing fine,” and he “never changed” any positions because he was being paid. Well, then – if you think Newt said dumb things about GSEs, he’s now told you that he believed everything he said. Not sure if this is the sort of issue the caucuses can turn on, but it’s not on.

9:40: Paul’s answer on earmarks makes perfect sense. He might not be the person to make it. When he says “if everybody did what I did, there would be no earmarks,” he doesn’t quite explain why he requests so much for his district. But he’s completely right to say that banning earmarks doesn’t shrink the budget. It doesn’t. Look at the budget.

9:43: Hey, Perry isn’t doing so poorly. Diagram these sentences and they look like Jackson Pollock paintings, but he’s getting his message out, of extra-constitutional cure-alls for destroying the legislative branch.

9:52: Generally, I think any round about “overreaching courts” goes well for Gingrich. We’re in Iowa, where in 2010 Republican voters ousted judges who legalized gay marriage – doing so with the support of Santorum and Gingrich. (The former campaigned, the latter cut checks.) Paul does what he can with the slippery slope argument, but why didn’t he pose the killer hypothetical: What if Barack Obama started abolishing the courts that ruled against the Affordable Care Act?

10:05: Ah, I was worried about this on Paul’s behalf: He’s getting ample time to explain why he disagrees with the Republican forein policy mainstream. His victory strategy in Iowa isn’t to win over the Republicans who agree with that consensus – he needs to grab 25 percent, maybe, if he’s lucky – but he gains no support on answers like this. He’s even put in the position of defending Barack Obama’s position on sanctions.

10:09: Team Romney sends out this quote from Newt Gingrich: “Governor Romney came up frankly with a very good variation on the Ryan Plan which allowed the maintenance of the current system.”

10:14: Wow, that got out of hand.

10:17: Pretty strong answer from Gingrich on the Keystone decision, (“I’m very concerned about appearing not to be zany”) but worth pointing out that the State Department has pledged to kill it even if it gets past Congress and Obama.

10:28: Not sure I understand questions about whether the GOP candidates would fire members of the administration. Can we reasonably certain that a Republican president will appoint a Republican attorney general?

10:37: It must be easy to forget that you’re supposed to pander to Iowans, because only Gingrich is doing it successfully. WHo has a good idea on immigration? Why, Iowa Rep. Steve King, who represents Sioux City, seems to have one.

10:42: Romney defends his support of an assault weapons bill because “the gun lobby supported it.” Profiles in courage.

10:47: Gingrich set the stage earlier for the gay marriage round, by talking so freely and with such detail about the executive’s right to overule and nullify rogue judges. Romney has zero interest in rethinking executive power like that. He was bemused and confused by Santorum that he should have found a way to interpret the Massachusetts constitution to invalidate Goodrich. The Santorum line about Romney “signing marriage licenses” was smart, informed by Iowa social conservatives. (Radio host Steve Deace cited that, in a conversation, as a reason he could never back Romney.) Bad round for Romney.

IT’S OVER. What did we learn?

- Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum had basically nothing to lose, and behold: They lost nothing and banged up the frontrunners.

- Mitt Romney only took heat in the final round, and he really did take it. If Santorum or Gingrich wants to argue that Romney is a convenient conservative who doesn’t even understand why government has to be challenged fundamentally, they have new quotes, new evidence.

- Maybe it takes a second debate to find an opponent’s weaknesses. Gingrich was unflappable in last weekend’s debate, but kept giving worse and worse answers as Bachmann and Paul pushed him tonight. Bachmann especially. He has to defend success against purity. Republican voters have been telling pollsters that they prefer success to Bachmann’s constant promises to fight, fight, fight. But we hadn’t really seen a display of the choice until tonight.