0 minutes. CNN told you to start watching this debate 10 minutes ago. Sucker. “We’re just moments away from the main event,” says Wolf Blitzer at 40 minutes past the hour, because the rules don’t apply to the only cable news network that can produce an introductory montage like what happens next. Fear. Terror. Glory. Graphics. Sound effects. Each candidate gets a choice sound bite or two. “I’m going to bomb the sh-t out of them,” says real estate developer Donald Trump, because this will be a debate that starts with swearing. “We’re dealing with people who have a thirst for innocent blood,” says former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, because CNN likes debates with lots of blood.
2 minutes. Everyone comes out on stage, and everyone is wearing a red tie, except for Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has a red dress. Red is the color of fear, the color of power, the color of blood. When the national anthem is sung, all put hands on heart. Only Texas Sen. Ted Cruz puts the hand under his suit jacket. He loves his country that much.
7 minutes. Quick shot of Wayne Newton in the crowd. Smiling. Vegas, baby.
8 minutes. Opening statements. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul starts by attacking Trump for saying he wants to close the Internet to fight terror and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for supporting bulk collection of American phone records. Kasich follows by saying his daughter doesn’t like all the yelling in politics. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie channels the fears of mothers and children of the Los Angeles public-school system.
12 minutes. Fiorina trumps all of them by detailing her own life of challenge. “I have beaten breast cancer. I have buried a child. I started as a secretary,” she says. “I’ve been told ‘No’ all my life. And all my life, I’ve refused to accept no as an answer.” Vote Carly. Vote for persistence despite failure, rejection and tragedy. Yippee.
14 minutes. Poor former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stumbles through his opening. When he says, “That’s what’s at stake now,” he trips on the word what. When he says “exceptional,” he transposes a couple of the letters. To rub it in his face, Rubio follows with one of his prose poems, in the meter of uplift. This one has something to do with his grandfather smoking cigars and President Obama destroying the military.
16 minutes. Cruz leads with vicious verbs: “hunt down,” “kill,” “utterly destroy.” Carson follows by asking for a moment of silence for the victims of terrorism in San Bernardino. Trump leans on adjectives: “horrible,” “disgusting,” “incompetent.” For the moment, he is not describing anyone in the room.
20 minutes. Finally time to debate. Blitzer starts off in high CNN style by pitting Trump and Bush against each other. Then something remarkable happens. Bush actually holds his own. He calls Trump the “chaos candidate” who would be “a chaos President.” After Trump bites back, Bush puts together a succinct statement of his plan for fighting the Islamic State.
25 minutes. Radio host Hugh Hewitt, who is co-moderating, tries to get Cruz to attack Trump. “How do you disagree with Mr. Trump?” Hewitt asks. Cruz answers by attacking Obama. Hewitt tries again: “Why do you disagree?” Cruz hides in riddle. “Well, you know, I’m reminded of what FDR’s grandfather said. He said, ‘All horse thieves are Democrats, but not all Democrats are horse thieves.’” Exactly.
29 minutes. Christie, who keeps saying he is a former federal prosecutor, gets another chance to scare people. “We have people across this country who are scared to death,” he says, before adding that if terrorists can attack a rehabilitation center for the disabled, “that means everywhere in America is a target for these terrorists.” Everywhere. Whatever you do, don’t turn around.
31 minutes. Kasich talks about his Islamic State strategy, using his hands to slice through the air in karate-chop motions.
33 minutes. Rubio and Cruz are invited to attack each other over their surveillance positions. Rubio thinks it is O.K. for U.S. spooks to vacuum and store American phone records. Cruz thinks it’s better if the records are kept by phone companies and queried with a secret court order. But that is not how the debate goes. Instead, they both basically suggest the other wants the terrorists to win. Paul chimes in to agree with Cruz, adding some more issues to the mix, like immigration.
40 minutes. “If your eyes are glazing like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate,” Christie interjects. Democracy sucks, yo.
41 minutes. Carson, who led by being silent, complains about not getting more questions. Blitzer asks whom Carson sides with in the Paul and Rubio over different approaches to the war on terror. “I think you have to ask them about that,” Carson says, apparently misunderstanding the question.
45 minutes. Fiorina gets a question about whether Silicon Valley should be forced to cooperate with the FBI to make sure encrypted messages can be accessed. “They do not need to be forced. They need to be asked to bring the best and brightest, the most recent technology to the table,” she says. “But they have not been asked. That’s why it cost billions of dollars to build an Obama website that failed because the private sector wasn’t asked.” Not one of those sentences is true.
48 minutes. Kasich slices the air some more. Maybe his fingers have been glued together.
50 minutes. Blitzer asks Cruz if his recent promise to “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion” might involve leveling an entire city, like Raqqa, Syria. Cruz doesn’t answer. Blitzer tries again. “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” says Cruz, backing away from any commitment to commit a war crime.
57 minutes. Trump gets the do-you-want-to-kill-innocent-civilians question. “I would be very, very firm with families,” he says. “Frankly, that will make people think because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.” That sounds like a yes.
59 minutes. Bush can’t take it. “This is another example of the lack of seriousness,” he says. Soon they are talking over each other, but Bush again holds his own. “Excuse me, am I allowed to finish?” complains Trump. “A little of your own medicine there, Donald,” gloats Bush. No low energy tonight.
63 minutes. Paul tries to get in on the anti-Trump outrage. “If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there’s something called the Geneva Convention we’re going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America,” Paul says. Trump’s comeback is vintage Trump. “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?” he says, before explaining his plans to shut down the Internet in “parts of Syria, parts of Iraq.” Someone in the crowd boos. “I just can’t imagine somebody booing,” Trump says. “These are people that want to kill us, folks.” Trumpian.
69 minutes. Fiorina gets a question about ground troops, and proxy forces, in Syria. She has a quick fortune-cookie response. “First I’ll just point out that talking tough is not the same as being strong,” she says. Then she blames Obama for dismissing a bunch of generals, including David Petraeus, for infidelity, and Stanley McChrystal, for mocking the Vice President. “One of the things I would immediately do, in addition to defeating them here at home, is bring back the warrior class,” she says.
71 minutes. Carson denounces what he calls the “phobia of boots on the ground.” He says, “If our military experts say we need boots on the ground, we should put boots on the ground and recognize that there will be boots on the ground and they’ll be over here, and they’ll be their boots if we don’t get out of there now.” Their boots there or our ground. Get it?
74 minutes. Blitzer goes to the first commercial, which has been a long time coming. “Everyone stand by,” he says. “We’re only just beginning.” Sad, and half true.
76 minutes. The debate resumes with a discussion of the relative merits of brutal dictators. Nobody likes them, but Cruz, and later Trump, suggests they have a beneficial effect of suppressing radical Islam in North Africa and the Middle East. Rubio counters by pointing out that these guys did a lot of really bad things.
78 minutes. Cruz scrambles everyone’s train of thought by saying, “It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist.” Don’t ask why.
84 minutes. Carson has a metaphor: “No one is ever better off with dictators, but there comes a time, you know, when you’re on an airplane, they always say, ‘In case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop down. Put yours on first and then administer help to your neighbor.’ We need oxygen right now.” We all do. Fact check: True.
87 minutes. Bush and Paul finish talking about how good or bad it was to take out Saddam Hussein, and Cruz wants to interrupt. But Blitzer won’t let him. So Cruz just starts talking loudly, attempting a steamroll. Blitzer will not be steamrolled, and talks louder. Blitzer wins. Cruz relents. Don’t mess with Blitzer.
88 minutes. There is debate over whether or not to depose Syria’s Bashar Assad. Trump is basically O.K. leaving him in for now. Kasich says he must go, with some karate chops to the air. Paul wants him to stay. Christie is sort of down the middle, but tough. That is followed by the requisite how-to-deal-with-Putin discussion. More disagreement, on the margins. Paul warns of World War III if the U.S. imposes a no-fly zone over Syria to ground Russian jets.
96 minutes. CNN invites Bush to attack Trump again, which he has been doing pretty well. He obliges, by knocking Trump’s admission that he gets foreign policy advice from television. “I would seek out, as I have, the best advice that exists,” Bush says. “I won’t get my information from the shows. I don’t know if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning.” Do they even have Saturday-morning cartoons anymore? Don’t kids Netflix and Nickelodeon?
97 minutes. This ticks off Trump, who turns not on Bush but on CNN. “I think it’s very sad that CNN leads Jeb Bush, Governor Bush, down a road by starting off virtually all the questions, ‘Mr. Trump this …’” Trump says. “I think it’s very unprofessional.” One thing it’s not is surprising. After all, CNN markets these debates as boxing fights.
98 minutes. Once again, Bush pounces on his former bully. “If you think this is tough and you’re not being treated fairly, imagine what it’s going to be like dealing with Putin or dealing with President Xi,” Bush says to Trump. “This is a tough business to run for President.” Trump is aggravated. “Oh, I know, you’re a tough guy Jeb, I know,” he says, before turning to polls. “Well, let’s see. I’m at 42, and you’re at 3.” He means polls, not age.
101 minutes. Rubio and Cruz clash over immigration. Rubio supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, though he doesn’t want to brag about it. Cruz once introduced an amendment that would have given legal status to undocumented immigrants short of citizenship, but he doesn’t want to admit it. “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” Cruz says instead.
104 minutes. There has never been a televised debate that has gone past the 100-minute mark without wearing a bit. Words are traded about refugee policy and about building a wall to block immigration. Cruz jokes that he will get Trump to pay for it, which is a funny joke. Several candidates try to interrupt several other candidates, and multiple contenders agree that Kim Jong Un of North Korea is an unsavory fellow, and that China should not be able to hack the U.S. without repercussions.
131 minutes. Trump is invited to attack Cruz one more time. “I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days,” Trump responds. “He has a wonderful temperament. He’s just fine. Don’t worry about it.” Cruz returns the favor, again.
134 minutes. In the first Republican debate, Trump was asked if he would promise to support the eventual Republican nominee, and he said he could not. Now he is asked if he is ready to commit to the party. “I really am. I’ll be honest, I really am,” he says. Which is news.
139 minutes. Closing statements. Nothing special. This group of candidates certainly has its rough edges, but there is a lot of talent on the stage, more than appeared on the 2008 and 2012 debate stages. Stay tuned. Regardless of the polls, the race remains wide open.