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GOP debate: expect more grenades tossed Newt Gingrich’s way December 16, 2011

Tonight’s GOP presidential debate is the most imortant two hours of the year in US politics. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and the other Republican rivals gather in Sioux City, Iowa, like the survivors of a first world war battle huddling in a trench.

One by one, the Republican candidates have gone over the top. Some barely made it out of their foxhole. But others have all made their brief bid for victory, only to be taken down by a deadly barrage from friends and enemies alike.

Tonight’s debate is the last before voting starts in earnest with the Iowa caucuses on 3 January. For several of the candidates on stage it is also their last chance – in what will probably be the debate with the highest ratings of the season.

Newt Gingrich is the latest – and presumably last – of the GOP candidates to be wounded after racing into a lead in the opinion polls. Only days after Gingrich’s surge showed the former speaker of the house vaulting into the forefront, his opponents starting laying landmines for him to trip over.

In particular, Mitt Romney spent much of the last debate five days ago lobbing grenades in Gingrich’s direction. The pugnacious Gingrich was able to swat them away – but Romney has sharpened his attacks, helped by Gingrich hoisting himself by his own petard.

On Monday, responding to an attack by Romney for accepting huge fees from government-backed mortgage facilitator Freddie Mac, Gingrich responded bizarrely.

“I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain that I would be glad to then listen to him,” said Gingrich, off the cuff at an event in New Hampshire.

At a stroke, Gingrich had not only punctured his self-declared positive campaign, but confirmed precisely the attacks that Romney and his surrogates had been making: that Gingrich was both unstable and – as the British say – too clever by half.

Republican presidential candidates who bash the free market’s profit-making principle tend to have a short shelf life. The problem for Gingrich is that he only excites half of the Republican party. The other half, he terrifies.

A candidate-by-candidate guide to who wants what from tonight’s debate:

Newt Gingrich. Needs to play against type and show some restraint and statesmanship. Likeability is his biggest problem, and he needs to reassure nervous Republicans that he has shed his ugly image from the 1990s and that his Nutty Professor persona wouldn’t get in the way of being a serious presidential candidates.

Newt wins if: he keeps smiling while dodging flak from his rivals

Newt loses if: he starts spouting about EMP and moon colonies

Mitt Romney. Needs to make more headway in framing Gingrich as unstable and unconservative, ideally through recycling Gingrich’s “bankrupting companies” charge. If he can needle Gingrich into biting back, so much the better.

Mitt wins if: he can bait Gingrich into saying something dumb

Mitt loses if: he can’t defuse his previous “$10,000 bet” gaffe

Ron Paul. Will enjoy his time in the spotlight as his poll numbers in Iowa win him new-found respect from the media. But Fox News is no friend and he should expect a few pointed questions about his views on foreign policy.

Ron wins if: he can keep talking about big government

Ron loses if: he starts talking about 9/11 and al-Qaida

Rick Perry. Gave a solid debate performance last time and desperately needs another. Romney shouldn’t be his target: he needs to steal support off Gingrich to get in the top four in the Iowa caucuses.

Rick wins if: he can bait Gingrich as effectively as he did Romney

Rick loses if: he has another debate full of flubs and gaffes

Michele Bachmann. Has faded because her debate performances have been poor, although the last debate was an improvement with her studied “Newt Romney” line, although it didn’t gain much traction. She is betting everything on Iowa and needs to fend off Perry and Rick Santorum in the battle for conservative votes.

Michele wins: by talking in detail about policies

Michele loses: by repeating the same cliches as previous debates

Rick Santorum. Is in a mini-contest with Bachmann and, to some extent, Perry for conservative Iowa voters. He has been a good debater but his lack of airtime has choked off his chances.

Rick wins: by getting more airtime than Bachmann

Rick loses: by fading into the scenery

Jon Huntsman. Wasn’t invited to the last debate. Sadly, no one noticed or much cared he wasn’t there. He is less interested in Iowa, and is instead banking on New Hampshire, but the former Utah governor is unlikely to do well there either,

Jon wins: if he can sound more than just sensible

Jon loses: if he just whines about the format

The debate is being televised on Fox News and starts at 9pm ET (2am GMT).

The Guardian will be liveblogging the debate from 8pm ET.

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Rick Santorum gives green light to racial profiling of Muslims during GOP presidential debate November 24, 2011

November 24, 2011

by legitgov


Rick Santorum gives green light to racial profiling of Muslims during GOP presidential debate –Spars with Texas Rep. Ron Paul who asks what if terrorists ‘look like Timothy McVeigh?’ 23 Nov 2011 Rick Santorum is giving the green light to the racial profiling of Muslims at airports. The former Pennsylvania senator [Reichwing whackjob] said the Transportation Security Administration should be allowed to target “the folks who are most likely to be committing these crimes,” during Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate about national security. “Obviously, Muslims would be someone you’d look at, absolutely,” the devout Catholic added. “The radical Muslims are the people committing these crimes, by and large, as well as younger males… Not exclusively but these are things you profile to find the most likely candidate.”

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GOP presidential debate in Washington – as it happened November 23, 2011

7.00pm: The GOP presidential race is finally coming into the home straight as the Republican candidates gather for tonight’s debate – with just 42 days and only three more debates to go before a real election takes place in Iowa.

Tonight’s debate, hosted by CNN and the right-wing Heritage Foundation think-tank here in Washington DC, also sees a novelty on stage: Newt Gingrich, presidential frontrunner.

Yes, the man with more baggage than Dulles airport, whose opposition research department needs its own opposition research department, now sits atop of the latest opinion polls of likely Republican voters.

As someone once said: if Newt Gingrich is the answer, then what on earth was the question?

Let’s go back in time to the heady days of January 1997 – nearly 15 years ago – when Celine Dion was top of the charts, and recall this item appearing in the Washington Post:

The House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to reprimand House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and order him to pay an unprecedented $300,000 penalty, the first time in the House’s 208-year history it has disciplined a speaker for ethical wrongdoing.

But it is sign of the weakness of the current field of Republican candidates – and conservative disenchantment with the most obvious presidential nominee, Mitt Romney – that Newt has floated to the surface like … well, supply your own simile.

What can we look forward to tonight? The subject is “national security,” the moderator is Wolf Blitzer, and according to CNN the themes include “national defense, the economy, international relations and terrorism”.

Obviously, Rick Perry and Herman Cain will be looking forward to sinking their teeth into substantive matters of foreign policy such as … oh no they won’t. Both Cain and Perry will be concentrating so hard on not sounding stupid that it will be a miracle if they open their mouths. Although Cain may attempt to silence the voices in his head by shouting “9-9-9″.

The question is how the other candidates react to Gingrich’s sudden rise in the polls. Will they take shots at him – or will Gingrich’s reputation as a formidable debater scare them off? Most importantly, will either Romney or Gingrich have any appetite for picking a fight? If not then it could be a dull debate of non-stop Obama-bashing.

We’ll be live-blogging here from 7pm ET, with the debate starting at 8pm and being live-streamed by video on

Leave your comments below or follow me on Twitter.

7.13pm: Steve Brusk of CNN’s political unit is watching the candidates arrive at the hall in Washington (where it is a miserable, damp, almost British evening). He says that Rick Sanotorum arrived in a pick-up truck, although “a very nice pick-up truck”.

He tweets Herman Cain’s arrival:

Herman Cain arrived with his new Secret Service detail, complete with DC Metro police cruiser at front and back

7.24pm: Speaking of Herman Cain, we know he has a problem with women – allegedly! But he also appears to have a problem with Muslims as well.

In the campaign so far he has said he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to a Cain cabinet, and that he has been told by a secret unnamed Muslim that many Muslims are fundamentalists.

Now it seems he got worried when his doctor looked a bit Muslim-y. Chris Moody reports on a Cain appearance at something called “The Holy Land Experience, a Christian-theme amusement park in central Florida where visitors pay $35 to watch a re-enactment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ”.

Cain told the crowd:

He did have a slight worry at one point during the chemotherapy process when he discovered that one of the surgeon’s name was “Dr. Abdallah.”

“I said to his physician assistant, I said, ‘That sounds foreign – not that I had anything against foreign doctors – but it sounded too foreign,” Cain tells the audience. “She said, ‘He’s from Lebanon.’ Oh, Lebanon! My mind immediately started thinking, wait a minute, maybe his religious persuasion is different than mine! She could see the look on my face and she said, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Cain, he’s a Christian from Lebanon.'”

“Hallelujah!” Cain says. “Thank God!”

7.32pm: Intra-mural Mormon political in-fighting here, as Jon Huntsman has a go at Mitt Romney for talking nonsense regarding China in the last debate.

So maybe there will be some fireworks tonight? The trouble is, Huntsman’s poll ratings are like the Chinese economy pre-1987: dire. But as Huntsman old friend Deng Xiaoping used to say: “Black cat, white cat, it doesn’t matter so long as it wins the Iowa caucuses”.

7.32pm: Calling Newt Gingrich fans! Or even, Newt Gingrich enemies! See if you can answer the first quiz question here:

Which one of the following Members of Congress was disciplined for ethical wrongdoing while serving as Speaker of the US House of Representatives?

7.38pm: So if you’ve been in a coma for a week or two – and this news may make you lapse back into it, so if you woudldn’t mind signing a disclaimer releasing the Guardian from liability etc – then the big surprise is that Newt Gingrich is ahead in the opinion polls.

Here’s the latest from Gallup: “Among Republican registered voters, Gingrich is at 22% and Romney at 21%.”

There’s also a national poll out from Quinnipiac:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich more than doubles his share of the Republican presidential vote to lead the presidential pack with 26% and in a head-to-head matchup tops former Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney 49% – 39%, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today.

7.52pm: In case you missed it, here’s my debate preview from earlier today:

Once the shock of applying the words “hot” and “new” to the veteran Gingrich wears off, it’s no surprise that the former Speaker of the House has thrived during a presidential nomination campaign that has been dominated by debates.

7.53pm: My colleague Ewen MacAskill is at the Daughters of the American Revolution [DAR] Hall in downtown DC where the debate is being held, and he passes this along:

Security is surprising tight round the DAR hall. Police cars have blocked off all the roads round the debate venue, fences cut off the sidewalks and there are police in force at the handful of entrances for guests, politicians and journalists. There was nothing like this at the other ten debates round the country where life continued as normal in the streets round the venues.

Maybe the police are worried about terrorists because it is DC: but terrorists could just as easily have targeted Nevada or Iowa. Or are they worried about Occupy Wall Street which was not a force in the early debates? Or is it something to do with Herman Cain, who got secret service protection as of last week? ,/endquote

My money is on the Secret Service explanation. Everyone knows terrorists don’t target Iowa – we’ve all seen the movies. Do they have a sinister typewriter noise playing over a caption that says “Des Moines, Iowa. 08.00 hours”? No.

7.54pm: Ok, 15 minutes to go until we start. I want you all the close your eyes and say out loud: “President Gingrich”. How did that feel? Scary, huh.

7.59pm: OK, this is getting serious now. After this there are only two more debates before the 3 January Iowa caucuses. So time is running out – although sometimes it feels as if these debates will go on for ever.

According to the polls, Iowa is up in the air. The Los Angeles Times reports this nugget on how influential social conservatives in Iowa intend to vote:

The Family Leader, a leading group of conservatives hoping to play kingmaker in the Iowa caucuses, announced Tuesday that it had narrowed its endorsement choice to four of the Republican presidential hopefuls: Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.

For any of those four, the group’s endorsement before the leadoff nominating contest could be a significant boost given the outsized role religious and social conservatives have in the Hawkeye State.

Just as notably, the organization’s board said it never even considered Mitt Romney, long among the national frontrunners for the GOP nomination.

After Iowa we have New Hampshire a week later, then two weeks until South Carolina – where Gingrich has spent a lot of time campaigning and as a southerner might be expected to do well. Then it’s Florida, and that could be 2012’s make-or-break state.

8.01pm: Here we go then … oh and the Iowa caucuses are six weeks away exactly.

8.02pm: Now CNN’s playing the Hollywood-style montage intro that we have come to expect/endure in these debates. Clips of FDR, Reagan … and Jimmy Carter. Can you spot the odd one out there?

8.05pm: According to CNN, Herman Cain “worked for firms with a global reach”. Is that the best they could do?

Oh, it’s Wolf Blitzer. “Every US president since Calvin Coolidge has been inside this historic hall,” says Wolf. Yeah, well, Calvin Coolidge would probably be leading the current Republican field if he was running, which says something. A lot in fact.

8.07pm: Newt wanders on stage. I hadn’t realised before just how … big boned, as my mother would say, Newt is.

Rick Perry
does a pistol-finger pointing thing at Wolf Blitzer as he walks past him on stage.

8.11pm: “Please rise for our National Anthem.”

Got to say, that guy from the cast of Jersey Boys kind of massacred it. But it is a devil to sing.

8.12pm: Right. Seconds out. Wolf is now telling them what a big deal being president is. They probably realise that. Maybe not Herman Cain.

Now the candidates are introducing themselves. Ron Paul uses it to talk about fighting “unnecessary wars”. Rick Perry uses it to introduce his wife.

8.12pm: Mitt Romney says: “I’m Mitt Romney and yes Wolf that is my first name.” No it’s not! Mitt Romney’s first name is in fact Willard. Flip-flop! His first of the night.

8.14pm: Man, Mitt Romney can’t even get his own name straight. But I’m sure he’ll explain it away, that sure yes his first name used to be Willard but that was because… something.

Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, shake hands prior to a TV debate in Washington, DC. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

8.20pm: The 120-year-old Ed Meese asks a question. He was Ronald Reagan’s right-hand man when the former president was governor of California. He’s now on the staff at the Heritage Foundation, co-sponsors of tonight’s debate.

Newt bangs on about how he has studied national security for forever, and the Patriot Act is fantastic and he plans to marry it as the fourth Mrs Gingrich.

Ron Paul has a nice line: “the Patriot Act is unpatriotic”. Now they are having an argument about the Oklahoma City bombing, with Gingrich saying it justifies the surveillance of the Patriot Act. “This is like saying we need to have a policeman in every house,” says Ron Paul, who is calling Newt Gingrich as a big government stooge.

First black eye for Newt there, among conservative Republicans. Interesting.

8.24pm: The debate about the Patriot Act burbles on, and turns into a discussion about TSA patdowns – this a reference to airport security, which gets a lot of conservatives bothered.

Romney is now hair-splitting about the difference between criminal law and “the law that applies to those fighting America”. Uh. At issue here was the application of the Patriot Act domestically.

Rick Perry says he would privatise airport groping, and gets a big round of applause.

Republican operative Mike Murphy tweets: “Look on Perry’s face watching Romney do his Harvard law school bit is priceless.”

8.29pm: Rick Santorum wants the TSA to grope anyone who looks like a “radical Muslim”. Ron Paul asks: “What if they look Timothy McVeigh?” He then attacks the “careless use of words” about America being at war. “I don’t recall voting on America going to war,” says Ron, who is on a tear here tonight.

Awesome peroration there by Ron Paul. Yikes.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain shakes hands with former house speaker Newt Gingrich as Michele Bachmann looks on at the CNN Republican debate in Washington. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

8.30pm: Now it’s Herman Cain. He wants “targeted identification,” which is basically racial profiling. “Is it OK for Muslim Americans to get more intensive patdowns when they go through airports?” asks Wolf Bltzer. “Now Blitz, that’s over-simplifiying it … I’m sorry Blitz, I mean Wolf,” says Herman Cain.

“Thank you Cain,” deadpans Wolf Blitzer. Audience laughs.

So Mitt Romney can’t remember his first name and Herman Cain can’t remember Wolf Blitzer’s first name. Well, that’s an improvement I suppose.

8.36pm: “Pakistan has been at the epicentre of dealing with terrorism,” says Michele Bachmann, before breaking off to say for no particular reason: “I’m answering your question, this is a dual answer.”

Bachmann does get off a good line: “”Pakistan is too nuclear to fail.”

As in the last debate, Bachmann gives an impression of actually knowing what she is talking about regarding Pakistan.

8.37pm: Asked about Afghanistan, Mitt Romney runs off a bunch of numbers, showing off really, but sounds like the management consultant that he is.

Now he’s using Indonesia as an example of what to do in Afghanistan. As if there is any comparison between the two countries. Other than they are actually countries.

8.45pm: Romney and Huntsman go at it over US forces in Afghanistan. Romney tries to drop the to-and-fro, showing some bad body language here by turning away from Huntsman and lecturing Wolf Blitzer about the crusty old “listen to the leaders on the ground” line.

Huntsman comes back at him. “At the end of the day the president of the Unites States is commander in chief,” and mentions Vietnam.

Romney is still being fluent but there’s no substance there. Newt Gingrich: “Wolf I’m a little confused about what we are debating,” doing his loftier-than-thou act. Now he’s doing one of his lists-of-all-the-things-in-my-brain things.

Rick Santorum: “I agree with Ron Paul.” Awesome. His subsequent answer doesn’t suggest he does.

8.47pm: OK, this is a remarkably substantial debate so far, or maybe the other 10 debates have lower the bar so far that a child could step over it.

8.46pm: Yikes: “We’re going to come to Congressman Cain in a moment,” says Wolf Blitzer. Is that Wolf getting back at Cain for the “Blitz” stuff earlier?

8.48pm: Ad break! Phew. Ah, so where are we? It feels like trench warfare so far.

Jon Swain, Washington correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, thinks via Twitter all the name-mistakes are the result of low blood sugar: “I’m blaming hypoglycemia. There’s no food here.”

8.53pm: And we are back – and whoops! a question from the audience – but there is no question from the audience! Oh dear, oh dear.

Here’s he is. It’s about supporting Israel in a strike against a nuclear-armed Iran. Herman Cain says yes he would if the Israelis had a well-thought out business plan including franchise openings throughout the Middle East. I’m joking but not by much. Cain would expect Israel to share its plans with the US. Maybe not.

“Ron Paul, would you support Israel in an attack on Iran?” “No,” says Ron Paul. “They are capable of taking care of themselves…. the whole thing is going to backfire when we go bankrupt and withdraw all our troops.”

Hardball from Ron Paul there.

Now Herman Cain is banging on about the “mountainous terrain” in Iran which would apparently make bombing its nuclear facilities more difficult. Seriously.

8.55pm: Another Iran question: could any sanctions work against Iran? Suprisingly good question.

Rick Perry says sanctioning the Iranian central bank will do it. Ad he wants a unilateral no-fly zone over Syria. Doug Mataconis skewered that idea:

There’s only one problem with Perry’s idea. Unlike Libya, the majority of the action by the Syrian military against rebellious cities has been on the ground. A no-fly zone would do nothing to stop that and expanding a no-fly zone into something larger would essentially make us a combatant in what may be turning into a Syrian Civil War.

8.57pm: Newt Gingrich says America can bring Iran to its knees within a year by cutting off its gasoline sources. Yes, as always with Newt’s brain, it is really that easy. Sabotage an Iranian oil refinery? Sure, piece of cake. And we all know how much Newt likes his cake.

9.00pm: Hey, Paul Wolfowitz has been let out of his lead-lined cell to appear in public once more and ask a question here. He looks in good shape.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney listens to Texas governor Rick Perry during the CNN Republican debate in Washington, DC. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

9.05pm: Now Mitt Romney is giving Ron Paul a lecture about cutting government spending. Bad move Willard Mitt Romney: Ron Paul has been trying to cut spending since when you were a quasi-Democrat.

9.05pm: Mitt Romney is now bravely attacking the White House, doing his inevitable-nominee bit. “If I’m president of the United States my first trip, my first foreign trip will be to Israel,” says Mitt, reaching a new high in American political Israel-love.

9.12pm: I love the way Rick Perry says “leg-is-late-ors”.

Actually Perry having a good run here on the effect of the defence cuts coming under the automatic trigger following the failure of the supercommittee this week. He’s actually having a good debate tonight. Probably won’t last long. He’ll trip over his own shoelaces in a minute.

9.15pm: More from my colleague Ewen MacAskill, embedded within the debate venue armed only with his wits and an iPhone:

I am always being badgered by Ron Paul supporters after debates for not mentioning him enough, or even at all.

I suppose it had to happen sometime. Ron Paul has had a good debate, at least the first 45 minutes. Describing the Patriot Act as the UnPatriot Act and unconstitutional, and insisting that existing criminal law is good enough to deal with terrorism.

Michele Bachmann is guilty of excessive hyperbole in suggesting Obama has changed the course of history by not confronting Iran. Tehran was developing a nuclear programme throughout the entire eight years of the Bush administration, which pursued the same diplomatic route as the Obama administration, even considering reopening the US embassy in Tehran.

9.21pm: Now we are back on the economy, which is odd given this was supposed to be a “national security” debate. But then as Ron Paul points out, if the country is bankrupt it makes national security hard to pay for.

Michele Bachmann is very excited at the thought that since China owns US government debt, it earns the interest from the debt. And it (maybe) uses that money to pay for its military! So, according to Michele Bachmann logic, the US should just save time and bomb itself now.

9.23pm: A powerful moment: CNN cuts live to a shot of Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Clashes raged in Tahrir Square between police and protesters. Photograph: Mahmud Khaled/AFP

But then it’s another ad break. Way to spoil the mood, CNN.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting tonight, with far more meat in this debate. Maybe the candidates have run out of soundbites? Or maybe they just have new and improved soundbites.

The mystery of the night is how little screen-time Herman Cain got in that last section.

9.30pm: So far – as Texas Republican Josh Trevino points out – no questions on: the euro-zone crisis, Iraq, India or world trade.

And the first question after the ad break is … the border with Mexico. Rick Perry wants a “21st century Monroe doctrine“. He says “we know that Hizbullah and Hamas” are operating in Mexico. Do we know that?

Ron Paul wants to end another war: the drug war. Forget the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, says Ron, how about the border with Mexico? It’s the welfare state that draws them here.

“I think the federal war on drugs is failure. You can at least let sick people have marijuana if its helpful,” Ron Paul expands. “I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties … and the kids can still get the drugs.”

All this common sense talk from Ron Paul, no wonder he hasn’t got a hope. In fact he’s getting more air time tonight than he has … ever that I can remember. Odds on a Ron Paul upset somewhere? Iowa?

9.32pm: Ah, here’s Herman Cain back again. And what a loss he has been to the nation’s gaity: “We know that terrorists have come into this country from Mexico.” Do we? I have no idea.

9.38pm: Ah, Newt Gingrich’s brain is on fire explaining his multiple choice ideas about immigration, with one of the many being handing out work visas to overseas students who gain a PhD in science. “Einstein came here as an immigrant,” says Newt. Ah, no he didn’t. He was visiting the US when Hitler came to power and as a Jew with a teaching job in Berlin he had no incentive to go back, especially after the Nazis attacked his house.

Republican presidential candidates during a Republican presidential debate in Washington, DC Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

9.40pm: It’s the magnet/amnesty/illegal immigrant part of the Republican debate, in which the candidates say they want to encourage some people to emigrate to the US and throw out the rest.

Newt Gingrich actually stands up for “illegal immigrants” who have been here for 25 years, saying he doesn’t believe the American people want to throw them out. That’s pretty brave of him in the current climate of the Republican party on immigration.

9.44pm: Romney says of 25-year illegal immigrants, “that’s the extreme example”. So will you throw them out, asks Wolf. “I’m not going to draw lines on who gets to stay and who gets to go,” replies Romney and retreats into blather about sealing the border.

Once again Mitt doesn’t want to be pinned down to actual things, like his first name. Mitt? Willard? Who knows, he just doesn’t want to be pinned down.

9.50pm: Larry Sabato, the political sage of Charlottesville, tweets:

Uh oh, Newt. Even PERRY has come across as tougher on immigration than you. Blue State Mitt strikes toughest pose of all.

Ha ha, “Blue State Mitt,” very good.

9.51pm: Now it’s a question from famous torture-enabler David Addington. Is the Heritage Foundation some sort of retirement home for ageing neo-cons?

Cute. They ask Herman Cain what he thinks about a “no-fly” zone against Syria. And he even answers, saying he’d “talk to our allies in the region”. Sadly, no one asks the obvious question: which allies in particular, Herman? Turkey? Denmark? Madeupistan?

9.52pm: Jon Huntsman is asked a question and he annoyingly pops the “sanctions against Iran” panacea that everyone else is so keen on, since China and Russia won’t play ball.

9.54pm: Question on Somalia. Ask Herman Cain, ask Herman Cain, please!

Dammit, they ask Ron Paul. “What if we had China put a no-fly zone over our territory, I don’t think we would like that,” says Ron Paul, sounding disarmingly like his Bad Lip Reading video.

In conclusion says Ron Paul: “Why don’t we mind our own business?”

On Somalia, Mitt Romney makes a generic attack on Barack Obama based on crappy misquotes. Why do the moderators let him get away with this nonsense? But Mitt doesn’t want to do anything about Syria other than what the Obama administration is already doing, which invalidates his previous line of attack.

10.03pm: Now Rick Santorum says he would also make his first presidential trip to Israel. Too late Rick, Willy Mittard Romney beat you to it.

Now there’s some silly open-ended “what’s the big threats out there?” question – and of course Newt mentions a massive electro-magnetic pulse that would destroy all of America’s electronics. Yes! Why has no one else mentioned this made-up B-movie sci-fi nonsense? Anyway it’s easily fixed by Will Smith armed with an Apple laptop, as I recall.

10.07pm: And that’s it! Phew. My colleague Ewen MacAskill has this instant reaction:

The story of the night is probably Newt Gingrich taking a gamble in advocating “humane” approach to illegal immigration. Perry was sunk by that in September but difference is that Perry characterised Republicans who did not agree with him as heartless. Maybe Gingrich will get away with his brave bout of honesty.

Yes, that might hurt him with conservatives, although he did make it sound so inconsequential that he may be able to explain it away. And there’s the difference between having an idea, as with Gingrich, and having a policy, as Perry had to defend.

Now the Bachmann campaign is accusing Gingrich of “amnesty,” a poison word for conservatives.

And Gingrich may have made it worse by saying in a post-debate chat just now: “There will be millions that will end up staying.” Millions of currently illegal immigrants? That will go down like a bucket of cold sick with many conservatives.

As usual with Newt, if you let him talk for long enough he’ll say something dumb.

10.17pm: On CNN now, Michele Bachmann is accusing Newt Gingrich of the A-word – no, not that one, but amnesty. “If you are legalising 11 million workers it sounds like amnesty to me,” says Bachmann.

Something tells me Newt will be rowing this one back in the next couple of days.

10.41pm: Larry Sabato agrees that Newt stepped in it over immigration, describing the former house speaker’s comments as “the mistake that mattered from this debate”.

Prof Sabato gives the following grades for tonight’s debate: Gingrich and Ron Paul: B+, Romney and Huntsman: B, Bachmann B-, Perry and Santorum C, Cain D.

10.49pm: Here’s the transcript of Newt Gingrich’s answer on the immigration question that has caused such a stir:

I did vote for the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Ronald Reagan, in his diary, says he signed it – and we were supposed to have 300,000 people get amnesty. There were 3m. But he signed it because we were going to get two things in return. We were going to get control of the border and we were going to get a guest worker program with employer enforcement.

We got neither. So I think you’ve got to deal with this as a comprehensive approach that starts with controlling the border, as the governor said. I believe ultimately you have to find some system – once you’ve put every piece in place, which includes the guest worker program, you need something like a World War II Selective Service Board that, frankly, reviews the people who are here.

If you’re here – if you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.

The Krieble Foundation is a very good red card program that says you get to be legal, but you don’t get a pass to citizenship. And so there’s a way to ultimately end up with a country where there’s no more illegality, but you haven’t automatically given amnesty to anyone.

Later Gingrich added:

I do suggest if you go back to your district, and you find people who have been here 25 years and have two generations of family and have been paying taxes and are in a local church, as somebody who believes strongly in family, you’ll have a hard time explaining why that particular subset is being broken up and forced to leave, given the fact that they’ve been law-abiding citizens for 25 years.

And later Gingrich responded again:

I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families, and expel them.

I do believe if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the US, we should deport you. I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we should have very severe penalties for employers, but I would urge all of you to look at the Krieble Foundation Plan.

I don’t see how the — the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving
them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.

It is actually quite a weird answer. Setting up a government board to vet who should stay and who should go? For millions of people?

It seems vague enough to let him out if he wants to back away from it. But it is also dangerously vague in terms of giving his rivals ammunition.

11.00pm: In summary: it looked for a while like Newt Gingrich was having a good night and living up to his front-runner status. But his open-ended answer on immigration hits a nerve inside the modern Republican party. It is one of the litmus tests applied by conservatives, perhaps more than even gun control or abortion, since those are now so settled within the GOP that there is practically no controversy over them, even at the margins.

But Gingrich has walked back from embarrassing positions before and he can do it again. And probably will.

One thing Newt did do well: adapt to the debate. Gone was the snippy, snide attacks on the moderators. And he even edited himself down a little, surprisingly.

For the others, Ron Paul had a stand-out night. He got some serious airtime, for a change, and he used it to challenge the party orthodoxy, the only one to really do so. I also thought Jon Huntsman had a good night but not enough to dramatically change his trajectory.

Was there a loser? One obvious one: Herman Cain. Cut off from his 9-9-9 tax reform lifeline he struggled like a drowning man looking for a lifeboat. He has nothing of interest or insight to add on national security, and it showed. He repeated his silly non-point about the mountainous nature of Iran making it resist attack. And he even got Wolf Blitzer’s name wrong. The Cain Train is officially off the tracks.

The other loser, less obviously, was Mitt Romney. He failed over his own first name, which was amusing. But more to the point, his carefully calibrated, focus-grouped answers generate no enthusiasm. With others getting more of a share of the limelight, and with his big policy plank on the economy taken away, Romney didn’t do much to build himself up.

Now there’s a break, until two debates that come close together: 10 December and 15 December. Both in Iowa. Not long to go now.

Finally, at last CNN runs a half-decent debate, it’s been a while. On the other hand, the list of huge foreign policy topics that weren’t questioned left some gaping holes: Euro-zone? Trade? Nothing. China even? Barely a mention except in passing.

What was easy to miss in this debate is that it had by far the lowest quotient of Obama-bashing by the candidates, for the simple reason that his foreign policy is the president’s one bright spot. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to find it very difficult to take on Obama on foreign policy outside the GOP echo-chamber. Luckily for them, there’s the economy.

Good night and happy Thanksgiving.

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GOP presidential debate in South Carolina November 13, 2011

7.20pm: If you really want a fair fight with a referee and a clear winner, then you are wasting your time following tonight’s debate. What you really want is the Manny Pacquiao versus Juan Manuel Márquez fight in Vegas tonight. And my colleague Steve Busfield is doing the live blow-by-blow here.

7.15pm ET: So after his brain feeze last time, Rick Perry is putting in more preparation, right? Mmm. Here’s a tweet from @GovernorPerry from this afternoon:

Debate prep in Spartanburg, SC !!

Very droll, and even more so when Perry forgets which state he’s in later tonight.

7.10pm ET: The Republican debate is being carried by the CBS network – live on network television, which is unusual for primary debates so far in this cycle. Either it means the debate ratings are creeping up, or its unusually dismal Saturday night programming for CBS.

CBS News is live streaming the debate right here for those you without benefit of a telly or US geographical location.

Welcome to live coverage of tonight’s Republican presidential candidates debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The topic tonight is supposedly foreign policy but never mind that – the real questions are: Can Rick Perry remember what day of the week it is? Can Herman Cain make it through 90 minutes without casual misogyny? And can anyone lay a finger on frontrunner Mitt Romney?

And the definitive answer to all three questions is: maybe.

It seems like only yesterday that the Texas governor sent his ailing campaign into a tail spin when he blanked out on the third thing in a list of three. In fact it was the day before the day before yesterday It could happen to anybody, said his supporters. But anybody isn’t running for president – even if the current Republican field is a veritable “who’s that?” of political talent.

Perry of course has to make it through the whole debate without even the hint of a gaffe, snafu or misstatement. But of course that’s why we are all watching. Deer caught in headlights have better debate repartee than Rick Perry.

Foreign policy, though, is the hardest subject for the eight Republican candidate on stage tonight, because it not only requires them to know facts but also that it is the one area where even the occasional Republican concedes that President Obama has had one or two tiny successes, such as the death of whats-his-name, that guy, Osaka Lin Baden.

Of the candidates, Ron Paul has at least a coherent presidential foreign policy, which is not to have a foreign policy and leave the rest of the world to its own devices. For the rest, foreign policy boils down to two words “Israel” (good) and “China” (bad). The only exception is Jon Huntsman, who runs with “China” (good) – although he is hampered by knowing something about the subject, as a former US ambassador to China.

The only other performance of note could be that of Herman Cain, and the increasing ludicrous contortions he needs to go through to link foreign policy with his tedious 9-9-9 tax reform boondoggle.

The action starts at 8pm ET and we’ll be blogging every hesitation, repetition and deviation by Rick Perry right here. Or you can follow me on Twitter @RichardA and read much the same nonsense but shrunk to just 140 characters. And why not vent your frustration by leaving a comment below? It’s therapeutic.

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GOP presidential debate: Herman Cain steps into the spotlight October 11, 2011

As the Republican presidential candidates prepare for yet another televised debate, the greasy pole of GOP opinion produces yet another frontrunner: Herman Cain.

Following in the footsteps of would-be leaders Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry comes the former pizza company chief executive, who boasts of his lack of elected experience, disdains foreign policy and offers simple policy prescriptions that include deep tax cuts, unbending social conservatism and little else.

It’s enough, though, to make him the “flavour of the month” – to quote Sarah Palin – for Republican grassroots looking for a saviour; those who distrust Romney, spurned Bachmann as too lightweight and were disappointed by Perry’s inept entry into the contest.

Over the weekend Cain was feted at the Values Voters Summit in Washington DC, thanks to his rousing address to the conference of religious conservatives and a second-place showing in the summit’s presidential straw poll, behind the methodically-organised Ron Paul.

Now Cain literally finds the spotlight on him in Tuesday night’s debate in New Hampshire, televised by Bloomberg TV. His surge in national opinion polls means he will sit in centre-stage, next to Romney, in the debate itself. And his new status as a frontrunner may see him under attack from other candidates such as Paul and Bachmann.

Cain’s sudden popularity isn’t unusual in the history of Republican politics, where outsiders have caused some startling upsets in the early stages of GOP presidential campaigns. Pat Robertson, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan and even Mike Huckabee are some of the names that flared briefly, only to sputter out.

Cain’s rise in national polls can be directly traced to the disappointing performance of Rick Perry, after several uninspiring debate performances and Perry’s inability to overcome a few distinctly unconservative policies as governor of Texas.

The conservative and Tea Party wings of the modern Republican party – which is to say the majority of the GOP – have four core issues: abortion, gun rights, taxation and immigration. Perry fails on the immigration question, because he opposes the simplistic reaction of building a massive fence along the border with Mexico. “If you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good,” was Perry’s pithy response. More crucially, with Perry as governor, Texas offers favourable local tuition fees to some children of illegal immigrants living in the state.

(To explain: US states routinely offer cheaper tuition fees for in-state residents attending a state or public university, such as the University of Texas or Texas AM, considerably below the fees charged to students from out of state. For example: at the University of Texas at Austin, in-state tuition for an undergraduate engineering course is $5,000. For non-residents, the fee is nearly $17,000.)

Perry has nothing to fear on the other three conservative shibboleths, but immigration remains his weak spot, especially when coupled with his apparent inability to hold his own in a debate.

All is not yet lost for Perry. He showed his fundraising prowess by taking in $17m in contributions, the most of any candidate in the latest fundraising round. And one good debate performance may be all he needs to get back on track – especially if the relatively inexperienced Cain finds the spotlight a little too hot.

The other main contender remains Mitt Romney. He appears to have gained nothing from Perry’s slump – a worrying sign that he has too much baggage to win the Republican nomination.

As a former governor of Massachusetts, Romney enjoys very high name recognition in neighbouring New Hampshire, site of the first Republican primary. But even there, his polling lead is just 38% to Cain’s 20% – while only about one in four of those said they would “definitely” vote for him come the election. That’s a disturbingly soft level of support in what should be Romney’s strongest state, and a sign that his history of policy flip-flops leaves him vulnerable.

Tuesday debate in New Hampshire is on the economy, with the three main rivals all having a strong suit. Perry can point to Texas’s record of growth and job creation under his governorship, while both Cain and Romney have a business background – Cain as a chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza and Romney as a venture capitalist. And all three have something to prove.

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