Slouching Towards Tampa (Incredible Shrinking Field edition)

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Equipped with my special Political Blogger Kit (a double martini straight up with two olives, and a Mead 3″ by 5″ memo book and a ballpoint pen) I planted myself securely on the couch between our dogs Tuesday night, mere minutes before the start of what CNN grandly billed as its Southern Republican Debate. When I turned on the TV, CNN’s go-to alternative to dead air, Wolf Blitzer, was proclaiming giddily that the candidates would “come out swinging,” which struck me as pretty unlikely on the very day that Newt Gingrich’s second wife came forward with the story about her ex proposing an open marriage as an alternative to divorce.

As is their wont, CNN began with a montage conferring a ridiculous honorific on each of the participants: Mitt (“The Frontrunner!”) Romney, Newt (“On the Rise!”) Gingrich, Rick (“Increasing Momentum!”) Santorum and Ron (“The Insurgent!”) Paul. With that nonsense out of the way, a brief rundown of the debate rules and a handsome rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Citadel cadets followed, and then each of the candidates got a chance to say “hey” to the audience and those of us watching at home.

Finally, at 8:08 pm, debate moderator John King posed the first question of the evening, about – surprise! – whether Newt had pushed wife #2 for an open marriage. I suwannee, few folks can bring the righteous indignation like Speaker Gingrich. The steam coming out of his ears could have cooked collard greens. Umbrage doesn’t get any more umber. And strangely enough, I agreed with him. Yes, it was in the news; no, it was inappropriate as a debate question.

After Gingrich got most of the high dudgeon out of his system (I always feel bad for the janitorial staff who have to mop up the high dudgeon after a Republican debate), Ron Paul used the first available opportunity to note that he and his wife have been together for 54 years. Classy, Dr. Paul.

Mitt Romney jumped at a chance to deride president Obama as a “crony capitalist” and used Solyndra and the Keystone XL pipeline as examples; a predictable Romney gumbo of lies and nonsense, in other words, ending with the applause line: “… it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.” The audience obliged. After this nincompoopery, he segued into some states’ rights boilerplate and then tried to equate “ObamaCare” to Amtrak and the USPS.

At 8:43, Dr. Paul took us back to a simpler time:

“I had the privilege of practicing medicine in the early ’60s, before we had any government.”

At 8:51, Rick Santorum told us he’s not flamboyant. Thanks, Rick. We hadn’t noticed. But he is nasty, as he proved when he started kicking Gingrich about the 1994 election. The two clashed with their differing versions of an era nobody cares about any more, and then a smiling Romney used the opportunity to portray himself as an outsider (a position Mitt often uses as cover for the fact that no one much likes him). For good measure, he mocked Gingrich’s attempts to portray himself as an heir to Ronald Reagan by pointing out that the Gipper’s diary mentions Newt only once, and then only as someone who had an idea Reagan didn’t like, adding:

“I mean, he mentions George Bush a hundred times. He even mentions my dad once.”

But scant minutes later, a retired broker in the audience asked the candidates as a group when they would release their tax returns. Gingrich jumped:

“An hour ago.”

Paul’s answer was slower and less nimble, but earned him some laughs and applause:

“Well — well, I hadn’t thought it — thought it through. I don’t have an intention of doing it, but for a different reason. I’d probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their incomes. I don’t want the embarrassment because I don’t have a greater income.”

Romney’s response was quintessentially Romneyesque. If you’re still wondering why even Republicans dislike him even as he seems poised to become their nominee, well, here you go:

“… I know that if I’m the nominee the president’s going to want to insist that I show what my income was this last year and so forth. When they’re completed this year in April I’ll release my returns in April, and probably for other years as well.

And I know that’s what’s going to come. Every time the Democrats are out there trying their very best to — to try and attack people because they’ve been successful, and I — and I have been successful. But let me tell you, the — the — the challenge in America is not people who have been successful. The challenge in America — and President Obama doesn’t want to talk about this — is you got a president who’s played 90 rounds of golf while there are 25 million Americans out of work. And — and — (cheers, applause) — and you’ve got — and — and while the price of gasoline has doubled, he said no to the Keystone pipeline. And while we’ve got 15 trillion (dollars) of debt, he said, look, I’m going to put another trillion of debt for ‘Obamacare.’ That’s the problem in America, not the attacks they make on people who have been successful…”

King countered:

“But some of the questions about when you’ll release your taxes have not come — the president has raised them — his campaign has raised them, you’re right on that. But so have some of your rivals up here. Speaker Gingrich has said you owe them to the people of South Carolina before they vote. Governor Perry made that point as well before he left the race. Why not should the people of South Carolina before this election see last year’s return?”

As the exchange continued, Romney began to sound a little, for want of a better word, Trumpish:

“Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama. And every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks. As — as has been done in the past, if I’m the nominee, I’ll put these out at one time so we have one discussion of all of this. I obviously pay all full taxes. I’m honest in my dealings with people. People understand that. My taxes are carefully managed. And I pay a lot of taxes. I’ve been very successful. And I — when I have our — our taxes ready for this year, I’ll release them.”

Romney was reminded that his father had released 12 years of his own tax returns in a 1967 campaign. King described the release as “a groundbreaking standard in American politics” and asked Mitt:

“When you release yours, will you follow your father’s example?”

There were audible boos and catcalls (and not just in our living room) when Romney responded:

“Maybe. I — you know, I don’t know how many years I’ll release. I’ll take a look at what the — the — what our documents are. And I’ll release multiple years; I don’t know how many years. And — but I’ll be happy to do that.”

He then tried to hijack the discussion again, circling back around to how he’s not your ordinary fat cat; he’s a self-made fat cat:

“I didn’t inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way.”

The cheering I could hear from the crowd had to be coming from Romney staffers; it’s hard to believe that anyone else in attendance believed this drivel.

A few minutes later, Santorum promised not only to repeal “every single one” of Barack Obama’s newly instituted regulations, but to do so “on day one” of his wholly mythical presidency.

A few minutes after that, Newt calmly and rationally explained why SOPA was a bad and completely unnecessary idea. Reeling and disoriented from having agreed with Newt Gingrich twice in one evening, I staggered to the kitchen to pour another martini as CNN cut to a commercial. When the debate returned, King asked each candidate to name one thing about the campaign that he would do over. Gingrich said something about skipping to big ideas, maybe an inadvertent acknowledgement that the ideas he never shuts up about now are pinched and small and mean, just like Newt’s character. Mitt drew laughs by saying he’d have worked harder to get 25 more Iowa caucus votes, a pretty adroit way of minimizing Tuesday’s revelation that Mitt’s narrow Iowa win had actually been a narrow loss to Santorum. Santorum went for the obvious cliché, asserting that he “wouldn’t change a thing.” He added:

“… for me to be standing here in the final four is about as amazing a thing that I could have ever conceived of happening.”

Careful, Rick. The last GOP hopeful who bragged about being in a “final four for the presidency” was Herman Cain, on the day he bowed out of the race. Ron Paul said he would have spoken slower.

Then it was on to immigration issues, giving Santorum and Romney another opportunity to lock horns and giving all four candidates a chance to trot out ideas that are unworkable, inhumane, absurd, or some combination of the above. King then moved on to abortion, or – as he labeled it – “the life issue.” This led to what was at once the funniest and most utterly deceitful moment of the evening, as Romney launched into a response to Gingrich’s none-too-veiled insinuation that Mitt is not really pro-life with:

“I’m not questioned on character or integrity very often…”

Zen, our good-natured shepherd/lab/husky/border collie mix, was a little confused about why I’d spat gin on this head.

King almost overlooked Paul on the abortion issue, but the audience clamored for the Congressman to get a chance. Once more, Paul took us back to a bygone era, “… before the age of abortion,” by which I have to assume he meant firmly in the age of back-alley abortions and coat hangers, a time most Republicans would prefer to the here and now. The notorious libertarian then said something deucedly strange, from several angles:

“So the morality of the country changed, but then the law followed up. When the morality changed, it will — reflects on the laws. The law is very important. We should have these laws. But law will not correct the basic problem, and that’s the morality of the people that we must do.”

I suppose one of these days I’ll have to check into those Ron Paul newsletters; in amongst the racism, homophobia and other crap, maybe, just maybe, there’s something in there that explains where someone like Ron Paul comes from.

Santorum, whose morbid obsession with reproductive right is rivaled only by his morbid obsession with non-heterosexual sexual congress, used his turn to talk about:

“… what our [D]eclaration protects, which is the right of our Creator to life…”

Where would our Creator be without you, Rick?

And with that, King smacked the haunches of all four and urged them into the home stretch, beseeching them to make their case to the people of South Carolina.

Paul got to pander first and didn’t disappoint, noting that “… South Carolina is known for their respect for liberty.” Paul, of course, was the only candidate alive when the state seceded from the Union, so his is an opinion worthy of some respect.

Gingrich dipped into his bag of clichés and came out with tripe about Barack Obama’s being the “most dangerous presidency of our lifetime,” the looming threat of a “billion-dollar campaign” and the terrifying idea that Obama is a “Saul Alinsky radical.” It went through my mind that these might have been some of the “big ideas” Newt had regretted not raising earlier in the campaign, but King unfortunately cut him off before he could move on to Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and Michelle Obama’s legendary “Whitey” tape.

Romney echoed this with accusations that President Obama is “changing the very nature of America,” which is a pretty astounding achievement considering that Romney immediately went on to enthuse about “America’s greatness” and proclaim it “the hope of the Earth” and “a shining city on a hill.” Seems to me I’ve heard that last one before, but never mind. It’s just a shocking shame that such a great and mighty country as the United States of America could be brought down in three short years by a big-eared socialist from Hawaii, (or Kenya, as the case may be). Don’t worry, though. Mitt’s willing to dip into his Cayman accounts to fix things, if necessary.

Santorum talked at length about being a “conviction conservative,” which took me by surprise. When I think about “conviction conservatives” the people who come to mind are folks like G. Gordon Liddy, Ollie North, Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby, but presumably Rick Santorum knows things I don’t. He also muttered something about voting for Reagan before Reagan was the Reagan we knew, but he didn’t explain who Reagan was at the time.

As CNN cut to Anderson Cooper so he could marvel at how this “key debate” in this “crucial primary” was “very fiery” and featured “sharp exchanges,” I mopped the gin off Zen’s head and wondered whether the debate could have been any worse had Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry been present.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the South Carolina polls are closing in half an hour and I have a pitcher of martinis to attend to.