After almost a month since their last debate (that's like a year in campaign time), on Wednesday night the final four GOP candidates shared the stage in Arizona. From the Mesa Arts Center, and broadcast on CNN, here are the top moments.
1. "How dare you ask about birth control?!" says the audience and Newt Gingrich.
Despite the fact that GOP talking points have been knee-deep in contraceptives for weeks now, when moderator John King asked the candidates whether they were for or against birth control, the audience booed him roundly for bringing it up. Because no debate is complete without Newt Gingrich angrily criticizing the media for asking about things they say and do, he fired back.
I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide … If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion.
2. But while we're on the subject, Rick Santorum argues that access to birth control leads to children born out of wedlock.
Eager to take a stand about "the dangers of contraception," Santorum pitched an unconventional argument that the accessibility of birth control — and not a lack of birth control — leads to increasing numbers of children being born out of wedlock and teens being sexually active.
What we're seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically, the impact on society with respect to drug use, and a host of other things when children have children.
Santorum was sure to clarify, however: "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it."
3. Mitt Romney explains why he supported a bailout for Wall Street, but not for the auto industry.
It's not what you think, said Romney. He repeated his view that, instead of the federal government intervening, the auto industry should have gone through a managed bankruptcy. But Wall Street was a different matter.
Look, I don't want to save any Wall Street banks. I just don't want … to lose all of our banks. And like President Bush at the time, I was concerned that if we didn't do something, there were some pretty high risks that not just Wall Street banks but all banks would collapse. And like many other economists, they were concerned that our entire currency system would go down. My view is this, we have to have industries that get in trouble go through bankruptcy.
Conversely, Romney's own endorsers have argued that no one could have saved the auto industry except the federal government.
4. Ron Paul wants to see proof that Iran has nuclear weapons; gets booed.
As the other candidates advocated striking against Iran with military action for possibly having a nuclear weapon, Paul separated himself from his peers by saying (to boos from the crowd) that there's no evidence that Iran poses any nuclear threat.
And if you want to worry about nuclear weapons, worry about the nuclear weapons that were left over from the Soviet Union. They're still floating around. They don't have them all detailed.
So we're ready to go to war. I say going to war rapidly like this is risky and it's reckless. Now, if they are so determined to go to war, the only thing I plead with you for, if this is the case, is do it properly. Ask the people and ask the Congress for a declaration of war. This is war and people are going to die. And you have got to get a declaration of war.
5. When keeping it real goes wrong? Santorum admits that he voted for No Child Left Behind solely for political purposes.
In response to an audience question about the candidates' stand on No Child Left Behind, Santorum said he voted for it — against his personal beliefs because he had to "take one for the team."
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. [Cue: The audience starts booing.]
You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something. And in this case, you know, I thought testing, and finding out how bad the problem was, wasn't a bad idea. What was a bad idea was all the money that was put out there, and that, in fact, was a huge problem. I admit the mistake and I will not make that mistake again.
In a rebuttal, Paul first said that, hey, he understands. "That is the way it works. You were with the majority. You were the whip and you organized and got these votes all passed," he said, before going in for the kill. "But I think the obligation of all of us should be the oath of office. And it shouldn't be the oath to the party. I'm sorry about that, but it isn't the oath to the party, it's the oath to our office."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.