Perry's out, which means there are only 4 candidates left, and — have you noticed? — only one candidate with experience as a state governor. Plus, there's all the new dirt on Newt, who just got endorsed by Perry, and semi-endorsed by Palin, and we just found out Santorum won in Iowa. It should be great fun. Hang out here.
1. Gingrich floats out, blimp-like. Santorum looks loose and happy. Citadel kids sing the national anthem beautifully. Santorum and Romney sing along, but Paul and Gingrich do not.
2. Intros: Rick Santorum thanks the people of Iowa. Mitt Romney tells us about his family, "the joy of my life." Gingrich notes he's a Georgian, "at home in the South." Ron Paul says he's "the only U.S. veteran on the stage tonight."
3. Sad-face Newt is asked about the Marianne interview and "open marriage." Newt's "appalled that [John King] would begin a debate on a topic like that." We all "know personal pain." To bring up this subject is "despicable." He's "astounded" that CNN would begin a debate with "trash like that." And don't try to blame ABC. "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
4. Do the others think Gingrich's past personal failings are an issue? Santorum believes in forgiveness, both from a religious and an American political perspective. Romney: "John, let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say." Paul is proud that his "wife of 54 years is with me tonight."
5. Romney is going to defend capitalism. And: "We're going to stuff it down [Obama's] throat."
6. (My son John is live-blogging here.) Much attention to the subject of returning veterans.
7. If we repeal Obamacare, what happens to the people with pre-existing conditions and young people who are able to be on their parents' insurance to the age of 26? The important thing is to get rid of Obamacare, Romney says, but "we'll make it work" — through markets. Gingrich says the way to help young people is through jobs. Santorum says Romney and Gingrich don't "present the clear contrast" to Obamacare (because of their health-care activities in the past — "playing footsies with the left").
8. Romney contrasts Romneycare to Obamacare and takes credit for having shown he cares. He Romneycares. Santorum lights into him. "You don't draw a distinction that's going to be effective for us."
9. Gingrich says: "I was wrong and I figured it out. You were wrong and you didn't." Santorum's all: It took you 12 years. Not good enough!
10. Ron Paul — he's the doctor — wants to talk about the larger issue government involvement in medicine, which even Santorum has supported. All the programs will go bankrupt, he says.
11. Santorum "Newt's a friend. I love him. But at times, you've just got sort of that worrisome moment that something's gonna pop and we can't afford that in a nominee. We need someone... I'm not the most flamboyant" — hmmm — "and I don't get the biggest applause lines here, but I'm steady, I'm solid, I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about." Meade says "It sounds like he's trying to talk his dad into giving him the keys to the car."
12. I say: "Santorum's on fire." Then: "He is flamboyant."
13. Santorum plays the "I was there card" against Newt. In Congress, Gingrich "was thrown out by the conservatives... I knew what the problems were. It was an idea a minute. No discipline. No ability to be able to pull things together." Santorum takes credit for "blowing the lid" off a scandal that Gingrich knew about and did nothing about for 12 years.
14. Gingrich defends himself, which sets up a careful statement by Romney about how we need someone who hasn't spent most of his career in Congress. Romney professes amusement at the way Gingrich takes credit for so much that happened during the Reagan administration, but Reagan's autobiography only mentions Gingrich once.
15. Lots of talk about releasing tax records. Romney does a much better job of talking about the subject than he did at the last debate. His best point: He's not ashamed of his success in business.
16. A question about SOPA. Gingrich: "You're asking a conservative about the economic interests of Hollywood." Let the copyright holders pursue their own remedies. Romney: "The law as written is far too... threatening to freedom of speech." It would have a depressing effect on the internet. "I'm standing for freedom." Ron Paul: "I was the first Republican... to oppose this law." Santorum opposes the law but thinks the rights of copyright holders should be protected, and the government does have a role. "I'm for free [sic] but... property rights should be respected."
17. If you had your campaign to do over, what would you do differently? Gingrich would throw out all the "regular consultants" and forget about trying to figure out how to be a "normal candidate." He'd go straight for his big ideas and he'd use the internet to get them out. Romney would work harder to get 25 more votes in Iowa "that's for sure." More seriously, he'd have spent less time talking about other Republicans and more talking about Barack Obama. Santorum wouldn't change a thing. He's amazed at his own success, which was "an affirmation to me of the great process we have." Ron Paul would speak "a little slower" and improve his message delivery.