The final South Carolina debate

The CNN debate in South Carolina, moderated by John King, kicked off with the crowd-pleasing full-contact sparring match between Newt Gingrich and the media that usually comes somewhat later in the evening.  King made much of the “direct, fresh character attack” on Gingrich emanating from his ex-wife’s high-profile ABC News interview, which hadn’t actually been broadcast yet, although it had been extensively leaked to the press. 

Nice media synergy!  It almost makes you forget that the same media organizations closed ranks like a Praetorian guard around Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities, and more recently struggled with all their might to ignore Anthony Weiner for as long as possible.  Remember when old indiscretions were considered dusty rubbish, and anyone who focused on the character of a presidential candidate was a Bible-thumping humorless prude?  Now they’re big-money news extravaganzas that get cross-promoted by other networks!

Relating that Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne says he asked her for an “open marriage,” King asked the former Speaker, “Would you like to take some time to respond to that?”

Gingrich stared King down and said frostily, “No.  But I will.”  The crowd went wild, and then sat stunned as Gingrich deployed a megaton of outrage at the “destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media,” professing himself “appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that.” 

King tried to defend himself by saying it was an ABC News story, and he was merely relaying it, but Gingrich was having none of it.  “You and your staff chose to start this debate with it!” the candidate said sternly, adding the most intimidating finger jab since Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  He went on to say he was “tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

The significance of this exchange is twofold.  It’s strong pushback against a story that’s supposed to ruin Gingrich for social conservatives, as well as making him appear scandal-tainted to frighten off the rest of the electorate.  When the other candidates were invited to take shots at Gingrich’s personal life, they refused.  Rick Santorum thoughtfully remarked that “this is a very forgiving country, which understands that we are all fallen.”  Mitt Romney stated that “let’s get on to the real issues” was all he had to say.  Whether or not his Super PAC will follow his lead remains to be seen. 

The other benefit for Gingrich is that he always looks good when he’s taking on the media directly – a striking contrast to how bad he, and every other candidate, can look when they’re merely complaining about biased coverage.  Ron Paul mused that since anti-corporate fever was in the air these days, “let’s talk about the corporations that run the media for a change.”  A lot of people would like to talk about that subject.  Taking on the media as powerfully as Gingrich did on Thursday night doesn’t just score points with Republican voters who don’t trust liberal news organizations.  It suggests that the candidate won’t fold when the press goes into full-on Obama 2012 campaign operative mode.  GOP primary voters consider that a very important qualification.

All the candidates were generally quite good throughout the remainder of the debate.  Romney probably had the worst night of the bunch, although that might be good for him in the long run – he needs Paul and Santorum pulling voters away from Gingrich right now.  Romney got into some quicksand when the discussion turned to his tax returns.  He promised to make this year’s taxes publicly available when he completes them in April, and maybe some previous years as well, although he hasn’t made up his mind yet.  The crowd booed him for that.

Romney said he didn’t want to release this information piecemeal because the media would seize each drop of his financial data to gin up more negative stories about him, but the crowd didn’t seem to be buying it.  Gingrich pointed out that if there was anything harmful in Romney’s tax returns, it would be best for Republican voters to see it while the primaries are still in progress, rather than waiting for April, while if the returns from prior years are harmless, there’s no point in waiting to release them. 

Romney had a curiously discordant moment when, during criticism of his pro-life credentials, he rather bloodlessly declared, “I’m not questioned on character and integrity very often, and I don’t feel like standing here for that.”  I cannot think of a stranger way to phrase or deliver that statement, at least not without bringing Jon Huntsman back to translate it into Chinese.

Romney invested considerable effort in painting himself as the “outsider” candidate who has not “lived in Washington,” and understands the economy at the “grassroots” level.  This is technically accurate, as Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul are all either current or former members of Congress.  Some voters might have trouble swallowing the adventures of Mitt Romney, Grassroots Outsider, but I think you have to give him some credit for having the nerve to try it, the way judges award extra points to those crazy triple-backward-somersault high dives, even when they end badly.

Romney was perhaps the best of the pack at attacking Barack Obama, making a point of bringing up the Keystone XL pipeline decision and some other horrors of Obamanomics.  Despite the thrashing he took over RomneyCare, he sounded more convincing than ever in his desire to repeal ObamaCare… perhaps because he spent more time saying “it stinks” than “it stinks because it’s a federal program.”  He was at his most passionate and engaging when defending capitalism itself, wrangling a cheer out of the very same crowd that booed him just moments before when he declared, “I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”

Besides cracking open the bones of John King to feast upon the succulent marrow inside, Gingrich was particularly good when discussing the SOPA anti-piracy legislation, currently locked in a congressional dungeon while some of its fangs and claws are surgically removed.  Romney was sufficiently impressed by his opposition to SOPA to declare that Gingrich had it “just about right” when it was his turn to comment.

Gingrich is still touting his strange idea for putting together some kind of quasi-governmental local boards to grant residency permits to illegal aliens who have been in the country for 25 years or longer, but he offered plenty of other ideas to address illegal immigration concerns, including a massive project to physically secure the border by 2014, accompanied by a (presumably sarcastic) offer to relocate half the bureaucrats in Washington to Texas and Arizona so they could man the battlements if necessary. 

He also stressed the importance of English as the official language, reforming visa procedures to streamline legal immigration, and outsourcing our guest worker program to credit card companies, because the federal government is “hopeless” at managing such data.  Gingrich got needled by Romney and Santorum for extending special treatment to long-term illegal residents, using his arbitrary standard of 25 years, but I don’t think immigration will be a terribly damaging issue for Gingrich at this point, especially since he promised to order the Justice Department to drop its lawsuits against state immigration laws on his first day in office.  One of those states just happens to be South Carolina.

Gingrich had an especially effective closing statement, in which he asserted “the American people want very dramatic, very deep change in Washington,” and described Obama as “an incompetent Saul Alinsky radical” whose defeat is “imperative.”  That’s a smart way for him to pitch his campaign, and his vision.

Rick Santorum was very aggressive, hammering Gingrich and Romney repeatedly over health care and abortion, accusing them of “playing footsie” with Big Government liberals.  He hectored Gingrich about his record as Speaker of the House, in an exchange that seemed on the verge of getting really nasty, especially after Santorum said Gingrich was forced out of the Speaker’s office in a “coup.” 

Contrasting Gingrich’s big ideas with his record in office, Santorum observed that “grandiosity is not a problem” for the former Speaker, but he falls short on executing his projects and lacks discipline.  He was only willing to extend a modicum of credit to Gingrich for engineering the 1994 ascension of the Republican Party to power in the House of Representatives.  He worried that “something is going to pop” when Gingrich came under pressure during the general election.

The problem with all this is that Rick Santorum is a truly decent man who doesn’t project anger very well.  It makes him look whiny, and a bit constipated.  He’s good when talking up his own platform, as he did several times tonight.  His pro-life passion comes straight from the heart, and he’s compelling when he talks about it.  But when he got into sustained split-screen tussles with Romney and Gingrich over their records, he looked smaller than his opponents.  When they challenged his facts, he looked sullen.  It was strategically necessary for him to be combative, and he had some success with it, but the role really does not suit him well.

Santorum injected a bit too much populism into his defense of capitalism, and he keeps using the common but groan-worthy language of “working men and women,” as if small-business owners and corporate executives aren’t working their butts off with grueling hours.  When he speaks of the need to win back Reagan Democrats, he speaks of a breed that is much thinner in today’s radicalized Democrat Party.

Ron Paul had a good night, especially during the questions about health care reform and abortion, which fell into his wheelhouse as a doctor.  The crowd rallied to his side when moderator John King forgot to let him weigh in on abortion.  He made a somewhat ostentatious habit of claiming his prerogatives, describing himself as the only candidate on stage who has served in the military, and declaring “I thought you were prejudiced against doctors who served in the military!” when King finally got around to asking him about health care reform.  Credentials can be flashed too often.

Paul was the only candidate who spoke on the dangers of blowing the dollar’s status as reserve currency of the world, warning that “bankruptcy and runaway inflation are coming soon, and will be a far worse problem than anything else we’ve been talking about tonight.”  Although Santorum pretty much left him alone, Paul was willing to take a few shots at the former Senator from Pennsylvania, chiding him for opposing right-to-work laws and remarking that his pro-life voting record was roughly comparable to Harry Reid’s. 

During the discussion of immigration, Paul suggested that if the incentives for illegal immigration are removed, there will be fewer border violations.  He’s absolutely right about that.  Illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle ever since Obamanomics began devastating the economy.  Mexico’s unemployment rate is considerably lower than America’s at the moment.

Gingrich will probably get most of the attention in post-debate analysis.  The big question is whether Santorum did more damage to Romney or Gingrich when he was in attack mode.  He spent much more time going after Gingrich, which is good news for the Romney camp, but I thought he might have gotten under Romney’s skin a bit more.  If Santorum pulls support from Gingrich, Romney will be one step closer to wrapping up the nomination… but if Gingrich’s spectacular judo takedown of the assault on his personal life solidifies or increases his support, and a South Carolina win makes the numbers in Florida start moving, this could become quite a race.


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