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Posted at 12:40 AM ET, 01/24/2012

Republican debate winner in Florida? Nobody who watched


This was like high-stakes dominoes, but less gripping. (Chip Somodevilla - GETTY IMAGES)
Well, that was a terrible waste of an evening.

Worried you missed the Republican debate? You shouldn’t be. Perhaps you watched Real Housewives instead. You missed nothing. In fact, I envy you, and I never expected I would use the phrases “I envy you” and “you watched Real Housewives” in the same thought.

“Cane sugar hides behind beet sugar,” Newt Gingrich noted at one point, in what was actually one of the more interesting lines of the night. This tells you how the rest of the evening went. Maybe for the next debate, just to spice things up a little, they’ll all stand together for two hours watching grass grow — or sugarcane. I hear that’s an important Florida constituency.

The night opened with Brian Williams, who was apparently off for the evening, telling the crowd to be sure not to make too much noise. This turned out to be like warning the nursing home not to throw too many orgies. The only warning that mattered was the one he forgot to give, which was not to snore audibly or literally die from boredom in the course of the debate, for instance during the twenty-odd minutes when Newt and Mitt Romney gave varying accounts of things that Newt did in the 1990s.

Twice in the course of typing that last sentence, I dozed off and had to revive myself by eating cane sugar (or is it beet sugar?). If all else fails, NBC can market tapes of this debate to people as a powerful sedative. It’s the Poppy Field of the 2012 campaign. If you make it out without falling asleep, you must be some sort of robot or straw man.

The debate started off with Mitt Romney determined to attack Newt Gingrich. It turns out that Newt attacking Mitt is far more entertaining than Mitt attacking Newt, like the difference between a typical Simon and Garfunkel concert and one where Garfunkel takes over the songwriting duties for the evening.. It didn’t play to the strengths of the duo.

Mitt Romney’s general debate demeanor is reminiscent of a middle-aged math teacher trying desperately to show that calculus is fun. His attacks on Gingrich had the effect of prompting Gingrich to do a passable impression of the Benign, Aloof Frontrunner, which was certainly a change, but not entirely what Romney had in mind. But Romney’s Attack Dog needs work. Even Santorum does a better job. A very pugnacious Mitt Romney is somewhat like a very disgruntled housecat. It can’t do too much damage before it gets skittish. It might break a vase, but that is about it, and it will injure itself more than the decor.

Gingrich, as numerous commentators have pointed out, seems to be basing his strategy entirely on the idea that he could beat Obama in debates. After watching a debate like this, I have to say – I’m not sure he can, and if he does, will it matter? Sure, in theory, Gingrich could win any event that revolved around competitive talking. But if it’s anything like this one, even the winner’s a loser. And I have no idea who that was.

Possibly Ron Paul. It must have taken a lot of resolve to stay awake while Romney and Gingrich gave varying accounts of the 1990s, and it must have taken even more resolve not to sigh audibly.

I can’t conceive that this debate changed anyone’s mind, unless that person’s initial thought was, “Gee, these Republican debates are far too heady and exciting, and I worry that if I watch another of them, my weak heart will give out from the sheer adrenaline rush.”

Maybe, in the effort to keep the crowd sedate, they went a bit overboard. The two audience members behind Brian Williams didn’t even seem rapt, and they knew they were being filmed, so I can only begin to imagine the rest of the crowd. At the end of the night, they cheered loudly — for their sports team. And Williams appeared to be operating under some new contract that prevented him from asking questions that had been on anyone’s mind since 2006 or addressed issues on a national scale.

When the debate moved to the Terry Schiavo case and the problems of people in vegetative states, it began to hit uncomfortably close to home. If the debate had been hooked up to a monitor, the green line would have been beeping plaintively from the twenty-minute mark onwards. It was that bad.

At one point in the debate, Newt Gingrich tried to imply that Fidel Castro would not meet his Maker but would wind up in… another place. Hell? Possibly. Or maybe somewhere worse, like in the audience of this debate. It would serve him right.

By  |  12:40 AM ET, 01/24/2012

 
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