The last debate before the Iowa caucuses begins tonight at 9p.m. eastern time on Fox News, and we're watching to see if Newt Gingrich says something to ruin his lead in polls. So far, Gingrich's debate performances have served him well -- as noted by this enthusiastic YouTube user, who posted a clip from the August Fox debate and titled it "Newt Gingrich Kicks Chris Wallaces ass Iowa Debate." But The New York Times' Michael D. Shear writes that, "With 19 days left before the Iowa caucuses, the candidates’ final face-off of 2011 is less of an opportunity to be seized than it is a nationally televised political obstacle course to be navigated very carefully." And most say it's Gingrich who must be the most careful navigator. "Gingrich at center stage in Iowa debate," Reuters says. "All eyes on Gingrich in last debate before caucus," the Associated Press writes. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza says, "Gingrich successfully parried off attacks from Romney and Paul in last Saturday’s Iowa debate but any signs of slippage tonight -- perhaps the re-emergence of 'Bad Newt?' -- could help drive the looming narrative that Gingrich may have peaked a little too early." One thing that might make Gingrich grumpy: if the moderators about the National Review's endorsement of almost anyone but him.
We'll start liveblogging at about 8p.m.
11:30p.m.: Understand tonight's debate without reading words: Gingrich thinks Bachmann has no idea what she's talking about on his abortion record, Ron Paul does not think too highly of American foreign policy, and maybe the reason the supposedly reasonable Jon Huntsman can't connect with voters is that he looks silly when he explains things.
11:26p.m.: Reviews are very mixed tonight:
- The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza: "Mitt won first hour. Would say Newt has won second hour (so far)."
- New York Daily News' S.E. Cupp: "Perry had the best debate of his life. If he could repeat tonight over and over, he'd be the candidate people wanted him to be."
- The Telegraph's Toby Harnden: "Good night for Romney. Gingrich not at his best but got better over the 2 hours. Perry, Bachmann improved but prob too late."
- The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza: "Maybe I'm in minority, but I watch a debate like that and have a very hard time seeing anyone but Romney surviving the long slog to Tampa."
- The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan: "Gingrich was the strongest to my mind, with the exception of his dreadful defensiveness on his whoring for money in the rotating doors of Washington's corrupt elite. Romney needed to up his game and score some real points. He failed, I think. Huntsman had his best debate yet - and makes me wonder if I have under-rated him as a campaigner and debater. Bachmann really came back strong, but Ron Paul stood out. His refusal to pander on judges and Iran gave him a real distinction. Perry was better than recently. I suspect Gingrich will retain his lead - because he showed some humor and because he relates to the viscera of this party in a way that Romney simply cannot."
- The Weekly Standard's John McCormack: "If a second tier candidate is going to surge in Iowa, I'd bet on Bachmann, not Perry or Santorum."
- Republican strategist Alex Castellanos: "Winner tonight: the zillions of negative ads still dropping on Newt's head in Iowa after this debate. He isn't doing anything about that."
- We say: Bachmann is much better at the girl power stuff than the woman she was once constantly compared to, Sarah Palin. And just as if we were Herman Cain, we wouldn't have called Nancy Pelosi "princess" given all the sexual harassment stories, if we were Newt Gingrich, we'd try our very best to act super nice to all women all the time, given the three marriages thing.
10:48p.m.: Bachmann accuses Gingrich of saying he would support Republican candidates who supported partial birth abortion. "We cannot get this issue wrong," she says, pretty movingly. Gingrich responds rather condescendingly after theatrically looking around the stage in disbelief: "Sometimes Congresswoman Bachmann doesn't get her facts very accurate."
Bachmann responds by implying that Gingrich is a patronizing jerk. "To say over and over throughout the debates that I dont have my facts right -- when in fact I do... I'm a serious presidential candidate." Gingrich essentially concedes she was right! And that he wouldn't purge Republicans from the party for some heresies.
10:44p.m.: Santorum says Romney actually issued gay marriage licenses. Romney keeps a tight smile as he's attacked.
10:40p.m.: Romney gets a flip-flopping question. He says he objects to Wallace's assertion that he'd changed his mind on "gay rights." He says he's always opposed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but at the same time opposes gay marriage. His story of how he evolved on abortion actually sounds pretty good -- he just couldn't sign a pro-choice law.
10:37p.m.: Huntsman on the immigration issue as one that could hurt Republicans in the long term by costing them Latino votes. "The Republican candidate has to speak based on our values. You don't need to pander. We need to be who we are... This president has so screwed up this economy, no one's coming here anymore."
10:33p.m.: Every time Perry pauses during an answer, it's hard not to hold your breath.
10:28p.m.: Professional Republican character Roger Stone tweets, "Ron Paul counting the minutes before this is over and he can smoke a blunt." Pretty safe to say if Rick Perry is the Republican candidate you'd want to drink a beer with, Ron Paul is the one you'd want to smoke weed with.
10:24p.m.: The Atlantic's James Fallows tweets, "If Eisenhower came back to Earth, he would have to endorse Ron Paul after hearing crazy war-talk at" the debate.
10:22p.m.: Gingrich references his alleged zaniness.
10:15p.m.: What does Paul think of American foreign policy of the last few decades? You can tell with the TV muted:
10:11p.m.: Bachmann says Obama was "handed victory in Iraq" and is "choosing intentionally to lose the peace." Then she turns to attack Paul, saying Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map and use it against the U.S.
10:08p.m.: Jonathan Bernstein makes us a little wistful for the debates past. "How can we possibly debate Iran w/out Prince Herman to remind us about the mountains. They have mountains, people! MOUNTAINS!," he tweets.
10:04p.m.: You would really run "to the left of Obama" on foreign policy? the moderator asks. Ron Paul says yes. Iran wants nukes because we're freaking them out, Paul says. "We don't need another war." More: "All we talk about -- the West -- is 'are we going to bomb Iran?' .. We ought to use a little bit of diplomacy once in a while."
10:03p.m.: And again, Ron Paul says all the things liberals wanted their candidates to say in 2003. When he looks at talk about Iran, he says, he fears "another Iraq." Mixed response from the audience.
9:59p.m.: When Santorum talks about working to kick three judges off the Iowa Supreme Court for allowing gay marriage, very briefly real emotions show through the politician's face. For a second, you can see his sense of real accomplishment and pride:
9:55p.m.: Favorite Supreme Court justice? Santorum: Thomas. Romney: Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Scalia. Gingrich: Seconds Romney. Paul: "they're all good and they're all bad." Bachmann: Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito -- it sounds like in that order. Huntsman: Roberts and Alito.
9:53p.m.: Paul on Gingrich and Bachmann's ideas for reining in judges: "To subpoena judges in front of Congress... I'd really question that... that's a real affront to the separation of powers."
9:51p.m.: Gingrich finally gets the chance to talk about history -- and score points against secularists who want to take "in God we trust" out of schools. He says he understands the law better than lawyers because he's a historian, and the Founding Fathers didn't want judicial tyrants.
9:47p.m.: Romney keeps up his message that Obama just doesn't understand business or the economy. "Obama thinks America is in decline. It is if he's president. It's not if I'm president." Cheers! Romney is getting better at playing to the crowd. Fewer weird quick chuckles.
9:45p.m.: Like Ron Paul, Huntsman has a very expressive face. But he doesn't look as adorable as Paul. Huntsman looks most presidential when he's not talking:
9:43p.m.: Perry calls for a part-time Congress. Moderator points out they only worked 151 days last year. Perry calls for them to work 140 days every two years, just like in Texas. Crowd seems hesitant in their applause.
9:41p.m.: Ron Paul says that if elected, he doesn't want to run everything.
9:40p.m.: PolitiFact tweets, "For the record, we did not say that everything Michele Bachmann said at last week's debate was true."
9:37p.m.: The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis tweets that once upon a time, Bachmann loved Newt. At the Republican National Convention in 2008, Bachmann said, "You all probably know our featured guest and beloved friend Newt Gingrich this morning as the former speaker of the House. He made an indelible mark that literally changed the course of the United States..."
9:33p.m.: Bachmann accuses of Gingrich lobbying "senior Republicans" in Congress to "keep the scam going," in reference to Freddie Mac and sub-prime mortgages. She says he was paid to do these institutions' bidding, "and the bidding was to keep this grandiose scam of Freddie Mac going."
9:30p.m.: Ron Paul says Freddie Mac -- and the government sponsored enterprises like it -- are closes to fascism. Thirty minutes in, a reference to both fascism and Saul Alinsky. The Ronald Reagan reference tally is at least three.
9:28p.m.: When Wallace says Gingrich was on the payroll of Freddie Mac, he looks like this.
"I was a private citizen engaged in business like any other business," Gingrich says, adding that he won't step back from advocating that "families on the margin" should get help getting homes. A little smirk at the end:
9:26p.m.: Moderator Chris Wallace begins the "D.C. culture" section of the debate. That does not sound appealing. Romney tells Wallace it's good for him to talk about Gingrich's consulting in Washington because Obama would bring it up.
9:20p.m.: "Governor Goodhair" has cut his locks a little:
9:17p.m.: Romney says being elected governor in a liberal state was a blessing in disguise. To get anything done, I had to get respect of Democrats, he says.
Gingrich seconds the idea, saying he's good at reaching out to Democrats. He says this after dropping a reference that thrills hard-right conservatives: Saul Alinsky.
9:14p.m.: Huntsman gets laughs for saying he wouldn't show up to a Donald Trump debate. Neither will Trump, sadly.
9:13p.m.: Perry says that if he debates Obama, they will "get it on." Then compares himself to Tim Tebow. "We were the national champions of job creation back in Texas... I will be the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses."
9:11p.m: Romney is asked whether he can be as mean to Obama in a general election as Gingrich can. He starts talking about his business experience, like the time JetBlue executives came to him. Romney says he said, "'Well that will never work.' Got that one wrong." This seems to undercut his argument.
9:09p.m.: Fox's lighting isn't very flattering. Everyone looks yellow:
9:03p.m.: We have begun! Gingrich gets the first question, moderator Bret Baier says, because he's at the top of the polls. But the top question viewers wanted to know, Baier say, was who was the best candidate to beat President Obama? Gingrich, in noting that Ronald Reagan was once polling 30 points behind Jimmy Carter, makes a freudian slip, and refers to Carter as Clinton. You can see the mental math there, right? Carter = Clinton because Reagan = Gingrich.
8:44p.m.: O'Reilly tells Megyn Kelly he can't think of a single new question to ask the candidates except why Ron Paul can't find a shirt collar that fits.
8:42p.m.: Fun potential debate topic: ABC News reports that earmarks doubled while Gingrich was speaker of the House in the 1990s. Tea Party freshmen convinced current Speaker John Boehner to ban earmarks.
8:32p.m.: Instead of previewing debate, Bill O'Reilly, Gretchen Carlson, and another blonde woman are talking about marijuana and whether it's addictive. "I would say you're a loser if you do this," O'Reilly says. Maybe this will be a fun debate question tonight?
8:20p.m.: Jon Huntsman's daughters post this photo which they say is of Rick Perry asking their dad "if he made the cut for our next video."
8:10p.m.: The New York Times' Brian Stelter reports that the Washington Post and MSNBC had to apologize for repeating a AMERICAblog's assertion that Mitt Romney used a phrase used by the KKK, "Keep America American." But Romney actually said the entirely different "keep America America." Two lessons here: 1) sometimes blogs are really wrong, and 2) American political consultants make a lot of money creating shockingly banal slogans.
Original post: As for the other guys: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul are wrestling for the evangelical vote in Iowa. A few conservative commentators have suggested giving Jon Huntsman a chance, but so only a few voters in New Hampshire are interested. Mitt Romney has been attacking Gingrich's resume, his soundbites, and his Tiffany's bill -- but he undermined his working class hero cred by trying to get Perry to make a $10,000 bet.