Trailing Mitt Romney in the polls in South Carolina and with Rick Santorum in his rear-view mirror before the nation’s “first-in-the-South” primary in South Carolina, which will be held on Saturday, Newt Gingrich needed to bring the house down in South Carolina on Monday during the FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach.
And he did.
Gingrich received a raucous standing ovation for his back and forth with liberal moderator Juan Williams. Williams asked Gingrich if he could see how his comments about how “black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps” were viewed, “at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans.”
“No,” Gingrich curtly said, using Williams as a perfect liberal foil. “I don’t see that.”
Gingrich said his daughter’s first job was doing janitorial work and “she liked earning the money” and “liked learning that if you worked, you got paid.” He said only elites “despise” giving people opportunities to earn money.
When Williams pressed Gingrich further, Gingrich said, “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.”
Gingrich noted Obama’s failures in creating jobs, which has has left many communities even more desolate, and said he believed “every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness.”
“And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich has said he has to win South Carolina in order for him to be the presidential nominee. Polls have shown Republican voters in South Carolina care most about defeating President Barack Obama, and Gingrich has always argued that he is the best suited to do so because he can take on Obama in the debates while running a campaign of inclusion that appeals to Americans of all backgrounds.
His exchange with Williams offered a potential preview of how effective Gingrich can be in taking on the liberal establishment, which will immediately bombard the eventual GOP nominee, in a way that can galvanize conservatives while being inclusive of and inspirational to all Americans.
Such moments can swing voter sentiment and turn elections around, and that is why Obama would probably fear Gingrich the most in a general election.
Gingrich was far from a one hit wonder on Monday.
When discussing terrorism, Gingrich eviscerated Ron Paul when Paul equated Osama Bin Laden to a Chinese dissident, calling that analogy “utterly irrational”
“A Chinese dissident who comes in here — a Chinese dissident who comes here seeking freedom is not the same as a terrorist who goes to Pakistan seeking asylum,” Gingrich said, noting that a 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson was sabred by a British officer during the Revolutionary War in South Carolina and wore that scare his whole life.
“Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them,” Gingrich said to another round of raucous applause.
And when asked about No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration law loathed by conservatives, Gingrich emphatically said it was “clearly a failure” because “ it has led teachers to be forced into a bureaucratic system of teaching to the test. I find virtually no teacher who likes it.”
Gingrich said that “first generation immigrants who don’t speak very good English are being tested against a national standard. And a perfectly good school looks bad even though it’s doing a great job because there’s no measurement that’s reasonable.”
Gingrich said he would say to the states that it would be good for them to “shrink their Departments of Education and return the power back to the local county boards, and then let parents and teachers and students get back to learning.”
There were four other debaters on the stage as well.
Perry was relaxed and spoke about his record of creating jobs as governor of Texas. He called out the Obama administration’s “war against organized religion” and said South Carolina was at war against the federal government, especially when it came to the National Labor Relations Board trying to prevent Boeing from relocating to the right to work state of South Carolina.
When the Washington insiders were squabbling on stage, Perry casted himself as the anti-establishment outsider.
But again, Perry could not escape an “oops” moment that has plagued him throughout this cycle.
Perry said Turkey was “being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists.” Perry should have explained this statement more to make clear voters knew he may have been referring to how Tukery has not been as reliable an ally as the United States hoped it would be during the last decade’s war on terror. His inability to finesse such statements is what has led to voters having doubts about him as a national candidate and why this week may be his last week in the race.
Romney knew he would be attacked, and he had an uneven night.
When Perry said, “Mitt, we need you to release your income tax so people can see how you made your money” because “we can’t fire our nominee in September,” Romney suggested that if he were the nominee that he would release his taxes in April but his answer was less than clear.
He did, as usual, show his considerable debating skills.
Asked about his flip-flopping, Romney said the main reason he is tagged as such is because of his past statements on abortion, and he explained how he is pro-life. He then turned the question around into a defense of American exceptionalism and how he is fighting for a merit-based society as opposed to Obama’s European-style “entitlement” society.
Asked about the steel companies that did not survive under Bain, Romney said it was hard to keep them in business because the Chinese flooded the market with cheap steal and deflected that criticism into an attack on unfair Chinese trade tactics.
Asked about campaign finance in the broader context of SuperPACs, Romney disavowed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation (McCain endorsed Romney just a week ago) and said he would prefer a system in which people can donate however much they want to their preferred candidate.
But again, he did not escape some awkward moments. When the subject of hunting came up, Romney awkwardly confused moose with elk and said he was not a great hunter before adding that he enjoys “the sport” and is “delighted to be able to go hunting” when he gets invited.
Santorum and Paul
Santorum had to fiercely attack Romney or Newt and ended up accomplishing neither. In fact, Santorum spent a lot of time picking fights with Paul. It is something he cannot resist. Likewise, Paul continued veering off his domestic message, which resonates with many primary voters, and could not resist emphasizing his foreign policy views that are anathema to many rank and file Republican voters, especially in South Carolina, with its strong military culture.
The next debate is Thursday in Charleston. And if Romney does not stumble, Gingrich will have to take votes away from Santorum, or vice versa,