The latest television Republican debate in Florida began with an over-the-top intro that nearly inspired fear for the well-being of the candidates: "The state that wrote the book on election cliffhangers!" the CNN announcer bellowed, as dramatic music played and images flashed from the Florida recount debacle after the 2000 election. "Expect the unexpected!" the announcer continued. "This could be the most important debate yet!"
In fact, there was a lot at stake, much more than the 55 delegates that the sunny American state has to offer at the party convention in August. The debate was really about whether Mitt Romney can secure the nomination now, or if he'll have to endure a long, expensive and punishing primary odyssey.
It was also about his arch-rival, Newt Gingrich, and whether or not he is just a flash in the pan who managed to pull a victory from the swamps of South Carolina. At stake is nothing less than the soul of the party, and the ever widening divide between its Washington elites and the angry rebels at its base.
The Atlantic Monthly predicted that the debate between Romney and Gingrich would "make or break one of them."
But was there enough material to make it worth watching, even though it was number 18 of the campaign season? No, the anticipation proved too much, though there were some meaty skirmishes and well-planned attacks between the top two candidates and the other two on the stage, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. But there were also more lies, half-truths, and window dressings.
No Mention of the Economy
That may make for good TV, but it's the voters who pay. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer tried to heighten the drama by asking absurd questions about US colonies on the moon, Swiss bank accounts, and Puerto Rican statehood, not to mention which of the four candidates' wives would make the best first lady.
For 120 minutes they "debated" the "hot topics," producing sound bites but offering no insight into how these men would cope with the enormous challenges facing the US. The most important topic for voters, the economy, wasn't addressed at all.
At the end, the commentators declared Romney the winner (because he bit the hardest) and Gingrich the loser (because he didn't bite back hard enough). Santorum was termed the "new" challenger (because he attacked everyone), and Paul became the funny uncle. But the real loser was the political system.
Those who follow this race daily may have long since lost perspective on how absurd it is. Even the ritual of having each candidate introduce himself at the beginning of the debate, as if they were unknowns, revealed how low the bar has been set.
"My name is Rick Santorum, and I'm thrilled to be here," said the candidate, who then introduced his 93-year-old mother in the audience, to a chorus of the obligatory "ooohs." Gingrich flattered Jacksonville as the home of the next nuclear aircraft carrier battle group, winning obligatory applause. Romney, as always, talked about his "five sons, five daughter-in-laws, and 16 grandchildren," as if this were some sort of fertility contest (thunderous applause). And Paul meandered off immediately back to his arguments for the gold standard (nervous clapping).
The first barbs came over the topic of immigration, which Wolf Blitzer clearly chose because it plays well in Florida. Gingrich had called Romney "anti-immigrant" in a TV ad. Romney, his fists clenched and face frozen in a frown, called this "inexcusable." His father was born in Mexico, after all!
Then Blitzer turned the tables. Romney, he said, put out a radio spot blaming Gingrich for calling Spanish "the language of the ghetto." "I doubt that's my ad," Romney lied. Meanwhile, the Twitter commentators found the spot within seconds on the Web. In it, Romney even says in Spanish that he approves the message.
Oh, the Latinos. No one can win Florida without them. And above all, not without the Cuban exile community. So the candidates were asked if they were for or against an easing of relations with changing Cuba? No one seemed to know what to say. Santorum wants to fully restore the embargo against Cuba and scolded US President Barack Obama for being someone who likes to work with "Marxist" Latin America. Paul spoke instead of friendship and trade with Cuba, and added "the Cold War is over!" Romney and Gingrich made excuses.
And space travel took up almost a half an hour of the debate, thanks to Gingrich who recently promised voters a colony on the Moon, including a lunar US state. "I'm not looking for a colony on the moon," Romney said. "I'd rather be rebuilding housing here in the US."
Maybe the best solution came from Paul, who said: "Well, I don't think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there."
So what did viewers learn? Each candidate loves Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida and Tea Party darling, who has not yet endorsed a candidate and was hopefully listening very carefully.
Each candidate loves Israel. They all love Ronald Reagan. Each loves his wife, a born first lady, for a number of reasons: "She is the author of a very famous cookbook, 'The Ron Paul Cookbook'" (Paul); "She wrote a book about manners" (Santorum); "she plays the French horn" (Gingrich).
At the end, the candidates lingered awkwardly on stage. Romney told CNN reporter John King afterwards that he thought the debate would give him a needed boost. Indeed, the online prediction market platform Intrade found he had an 87 percent chance of winning the Tuesday primary after the CNN debate. He might have won, but many others lost.