The Jacksonville Debate: Live Thread and Whittling Contest

Republican presidential candidates stand during the American national anthem prior to the start of the Florida Republican Presidential debate January 26, 2012 at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. From left are: former senator Rick Santorum; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. AFP PHOTO /Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images) Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Having escaped the charismatic aura of Pastor Terry Jones, I’ve made it to the debate hall, ready and somewhat willing to liveblog.

8:05: According to the Steven Tyler songbook, the choir got the notes all wrong on that Star-Spangled Banner rendition.

8:09: A self-deportation question lets us start the debate with Santorum… agreeing with Mitt Romney. That’s quite the tone change from last time, and it’s the sign of a candidate who wants to go out with dignity. Oh, no, I’m not suggesting he’ll drop out soon, not when Foster Friess has just started throwing cash behind him. But Santorum hasn’t had any success taking conservative support from Gingrich; why not be an elder statesman?

8:13: The immigration round, which makes me nostalgic for the Bush economic bubble and the last time politics focused on this, “There will be self-deportation.” “I don’t think anyone is interested in rounding people up.

8:17: “I don’t believe an unrealistic promise is going to get through.” Not until we accept Moon Colony Newt as the 51st state.

8:20: The Great Grandmother Exchange of 2012 proves nothing so much as it proves that Gingrich’s “selective service board for nice illegal immigrants who’ve been here a while” really isn’t amnesty. Romney, who’s aggressive in a very surface manner, is totally unwilling to consider deporting all illegal immigrants. “No one wants to round up” illegals, he says, which hints that he’s never heard of the Minutemen. “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.” All this reveals is that Romney doesn’t have to commute in Florida.

8:24: Santorum is the king of the obscure, ugly fact about the perfidy of liberals. He’s totally right on the Columbia trade deal, which was held up by AFL-CIO opposition, among other things.

8:28: Gingrich’s “ohhhh, really” expression when CNN confirms that Romney’s TV ad is actually Romney’s TV is priceless. So is Romney’s answer: He’s single-handedly negating the importance of the “I approved this message line” by deploying Ronald Reagan’s answer to Iran-Contra questions.

8:32: “And what my trustee did…” Romney has that Kerry-esque skill of being unable to spin some nonsense about a complicated issue, and instead giving an inherently unrelatable explanation.

8:37: It’s too ingrained in the debate to contradict, I suppose, but the idea that the Community Reinvestment Act was behind the financial crisis is – to quote a presidential candidate – pious baloney. The fact is that Freddie/Fannie guaranteed loans had higher standards than the less-regulated private loans.

8:41: What do you know, Romney wins the War of the Moderator for once. It helps that Gingrich’s attack on Blitzer, this time, is completely indefensible. Out of nowhere, he rejects the idea that he has to fight out campaign trail rhetoric onstage: It’s below the dignity of a debate! This tees up Romney: “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make statements they weren’t willing to defend onstage?” Nothing Gingrich says after that really lands. Blitzer doesn’t back down, and the question is far – the magic slips away.

8:48: A good zinger from Ron Paul: “There are laws against age discrimination!” He’s just happy not to get another damn question about whether he’d run third party.

8:55: Just like his speech last week, Gingrich’s moon talk actually makes sense here. He’s describing things that would be good for the economy two hours down the coast.

8:58: Incredible. Romney, taking his shot at the moon question, says that if somebody came to him and wanted to spend millions on a space quest, he’d tell them, “You’re fired.” I waited for another candidate to bring this back to the “heartless vulture capitalist who loves firing people” theme. Nobody did.

9:08: Santorum is completely right that Romney can’t oppose the idea of a health care mandate (a conservative idea until 2009, etc, etc) in a debate with Barack Obama. I’m just not sure of the calculus here: Which votes does Romney lose in a general election because he’s critical of the national health care law but not defends state mandates?

9:18: Ron Paul’s campaign, not on board with the candidate’s jokey focus, reminds us that Santorum once spoke up for the health care mandate, back when it was the default GOP “answer” to Hillarycare.

9:25: There are loud laughs of arguable maturity in the media filing center when Gingrich begins a comment about the possible First Ladies by saying “all three of the wives.” I think the Fourth Estate cares more about this than the conservative voter.

9:31: I miss the Gingrichian aggression of old, but maybe he doesn’t have to pile on Romney in a round about Ronald Reagan. Romney’s answer that he’s “never voted for a Democrat when the Republican was on the ballot” is a novel way of admitting that he once voted for Paul Tsongas. Not a killer – Tsongas was the flat tax candidate.

9:38: We’re probably denying Newt a Moment by not letting him field this one first: “As a Palestinian-American Republican, I’m here to tell you: We do exist.” It’s directed straight to Gingrich, and Romney gets it first.

9:42: This pandering to Puerto Rican voters is actually somewhat relevant and useful. Puerto Rico votes on March 18, right after Super Tuesday, and has almost as many delegates as South Carolina.

9:55: I’m late to this, but Romney’s answer on Fannie/Freddie stock doesn’t hold up. Here’s what he said.

My investments are not made by me.  My investments for the last 10 years have been in a blind trust, managed by a trustee.  Secondly, the investments that they’ve made, we’ve learned about this as we made our financial disclosure, have been in mutual funds and bonds. I don’t own stock in either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.  There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds.

Here’s what Matt Viser reported last year.

On his financial disclosure statement filed last month, Romney reported owning between $250,001 and $500,000 in a mutual fund that invests in debt notes of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, among other government entities. Over the previous year, he had reported earning between $15,001 and $50,000 in interest from those investments.

And unlike most of Romney’s financial holdings, which are held in a blind trust that is overseen by a trustee and not known to Romney, this particular investment was among those that would have been known to Romney.

So which is it? Nothing against Romney, but I trust the forms.

10:10: The Romney campaign, via Eric Ferhrnstrom, says that the original report was inaccurate. Fair and balanced, you decide.

So, who won? I’d keep it simple. If Gingrich’s selling point is that he can pull Barack Obama’s limbs off in a debate, and he muffed a few attacks on Mitt Romney, I’d say he lost. I keep going back to two things: The missed opportunity when no one attacked Romney for his “I’d fire him” riff, and Gingrich’s backfiring attack on Freddie/Fannie investments. For the first time in a while, it felt like Gingrich’s lack of prep hurt him.

“It was a key moment,” said a very ready Fehrnstrom. “The air went out of him.”