Can a Republican presidential candidate have a second surge? Mitt Romney should hope not. At Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Newt Gingrich won in both the compulsory and freestyle categories: He offered complete answers that will look great to Republicans on YouTube (his exchange with Juan Williams), quips at his opponent’s expense (his dig at Romney’s super PAC), memorable lines (Andrew Jackson’s view on killing enemies), and substance (he had the details, not merely generalities).
If conservatives feel they must rally around a single alternative to Romney who can forcefully take on Obama and argue unapologetically for conservative principles, Gingrich presented the best possible case at the right moment. Gingrich has said that if Romney wins South Carolina, the race is over. Each day some new Republican voice echoes that sentiment. In national polls, Romney is running more than 20 points ahead of the pack.
Gingrich’s strongest moment was his nearly five-minute exchange with Fox’s Juan Williams, who asked Gingrich about his comments about African-Americans and food stamps and his suggestion that inner-city kids take on janitorial duties at school to develop good work habits. Didn’t he see how that might be offensive, Williams asked. “No,” Gingrich responded. It was the biggest applause for a one-word answer at a debate since Joe Biden responded to a question asking if he could curb his verbosity by simply answering “Yes.”
Gingrich went on to defend his theory about the relationship between work and self-esteem, lashing out against liberal elites and concluding with a riff that won him a standing ovation: “So here's my point,” he said straight into the camera. “I believe 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.”
To give you some sense of how well the Juan Williams exchange went for Gingrich, look at the audience reactions during the back-and-forth as recorded by the Congressional Quarterly transcript: (APPLAUSE); (LAUGHTER); (APPLAUSE); (APPLAUSE);(BOOING [of Williams]);(APPLAUSE); (LAUGHTER);(APPLAUSE); (APPLAUSE); (APPLAUSE); (APPLAUSE); (COMMERCIAL BREAK).
It wasn’t just that Gingrich was saying things conservatives believe. He was standing up for conservative principles under assault. He was showing conviction and fight, something that voters who worry about Romney have been looking for.
Romney did not have his best night. He talks a lot about strength on the stump, particularly when it comes to national security. But he seemed weak onstage compared to Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum. Those candidates have an urgency in their voice when they talk about what they believe in (it’s not just that they’re urgent because they’re behind in the polls). Romney’s responses seemed rote for most of the debate. Usually he overcomes his lack of passion with precision and facts, but this time he was wobbly for a few patches, which made him seem vulnerable.
But only to a point. Romney’s rivals helped themselves but they did not make a sustained, effective case against him. Weakness in one performance isn’t going to undermine the pitch that has been working for him: Voters think he’s electable and his experience in the business community gives him special insight into the economy.
Romney is also likely to continue to benefit from strong performances from his rivals. When they all do well, it makes it harder to pick a clear Romney alternative. Lots of choices means the vote is split. Campaigning Monday, Gingrich pleaded with conservatives not to do this. “If you vote for Senator Santorum, in effect you’re functionally voting for Governor Romney to be the nominee because he’s not going to beat him,” Gingrich said. “The only way you can stop Governor Romney for all practical purposes is to vote for Newt Gingrich. That’s just a fact. It’s a mathematical fact now.”