0 minutes. Dry your eyes. It’s hard on all of us. But if you keep crying like this you won’t be able to see the 20th debate, perhaps the last of the primaries. We can do this together, learn to let go. But the sobbing must stop. James Earl Jones just said, “This is CNN.” John King is standing on the space stage. We have so many memories. Let’s make just a few more. King says this debate “could change everything.” Believe.
1 minute. Montage. High desert mountains. Low political clichés. “Grand showdown.” “All over the map.” “Could take another turn.” “Fight to the finish.” Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is the “late contender.” Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the “Long Distance Runner.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “Determined Challenger.” Texas Representative Ron Paul is the “Delegate Hunter.” None of these words mean anything.
22 minutes. Have we mentioned the chairs? This is different. Everyone is sitting down. Only Romney has kept his suit jacket buttoned. Good judgement there. He looks like he is ready. The rest look like they are reclining after a big meal.
30 minutes. Here is a typical exchange: “Attached to a bill? Attached to a bill?” asks Romney. “As part of the bill. Congressman Paul…” says Santorum. “And the President can’t veto it?” asks Romney. “He can veto the bill,” says Santorum. “The whole bill, but he can’t veto the earmark?” asks Romney. “Well, we tried to do that, by the way. I supported a line-item veto,” says Santorum. “That’s what I support. That’s what I support,” says Romney. “Hold on. Hold on,” says Santorum. Democracy in action.
34 minutes. From earmarks to bailouts. Santorum says he is against all bailouts, and that Romney opposed the auto bailout but supported the bailout of Wall Street in 2008. Romney gets all huffy. “Nice, nice try,” he says. An inferior transition sentence. Then he explains at length his auto-non-bailout position. He says he wasn’t just bailing out Wall Street by supporting TARP, but trying to bail out all banks. And he pulls out more oppo on Santorum. “Now, Senator you voted in favor of the bail out of the airline industry after 9/11,” he says. “I think that was the right thing to do. It was an emergency.” This is an odd attack, since it is actually a compliment.
39 minutes. Santorum can’t let Romney get away with the compliment-attack. “As Governor Romney well knows, that the American government shut down the airline industry after 9/11,” Santorum begins. But pretty soon Romney is interrupting. “I agree with you,” he says. “I agree.” All confusing. Like two gladiators blowing deadly kisses.
100 minutes. Santorum gets a question about his past support for No Child Left Behind, which he now opposes. Santorum says he supported the bill for the worst political reasons, without believing in what he did at the time. “I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake,” he says. The crowd boos. “Courage” Santorum.
111 minutes. Final question. What is the biggest misconception about you? Paul says it’s the media’s notion that he can’t win. Gingrich doesn’t answer the question. He just talks about how ready he is to solve big problems. Romney also dodges, and goes into his stump speech about restoring America’s promise. King points out that this is not a response to the question. Romney gets testy, “You know, you get to ask the questions want, I get to give the answers I want. Fair enough?” This is jarring and off message. Doesn’t feel restorative. Santorum says people don’t understand that he can beat Barack Obama.
116 minutes. That’s it. We’re done. And we may never return. It’s been 20 debates. A long wild ride. We made it. Let the tears flow.