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.”
Conservatives who are still looking for a Romney alternative could find something to like in Perry’s call to return power to the states, his call to end the “war” on the states from federal regulations, and his defense of Marines condemned for urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters killed in battle.
Santorum, who seemed to disappear from the stage at times, had moments of command. He pressed Romney on his record in Massachusetts and Gingrich on his Social Security plan. He wasn’t stellar, and not nearly as good as he needed to be to become the front-runner in the non-Romney race, but if you were a Santorum supporter he didn’t do anything to make you jump ship. (Only Paul had a bad night; at times, explaining his positions on defense spending and killing Bin Laden, he meandered.)
Romney was at his best when he talked about his years working at Bain Capital. At the very start of the debate, Gingrich was on his heels as he defended his series of attacks on Romney’s history at the company. When Romney got his chance to rebut he simply stood up for capitalism. It was an open stretch to sing the praises of free enterprise. When Rick Perry knocked him for a steel plant that closed in South Carolina, Romney gave a perfect response about how foreign dumping had changed the market and caused 40 American plants to close. It was because of experiences like that, fighting unfair foreign-trade practices, Romney argued, that he understands how the economy works.
One of Romney’s weakest moments came when he seemed to be uncharacteristically without a four-point answer to a question. Rick Santorum had pressed him on his views about allowing felons to vote once they have been rehabilitated. Santorum was in command of the moment, and Romney seemed to be playing for time, unsure of what he was going to say. Finally, Romney said he was against letting violent felons vote even after they’d served out their sentences.
But Romney’s worst moment came when he was pressed on his tax returns. His answer was all waffle. Here’s a snippet: “You know, if [releasing returns in April has] been the tradition, and I'm not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I'll keep that open.” Actually, he’s being asked about it now. And if he’s open to doing it in April, why not release them now? If you watched just the answer it would confirm every stereotype about Romney as a vacillator. The good news for Romney is that people probably don’t care about his tax returns. They know he’s in the 1 percent. Candidates who go on about it are likely to seem out of touch.
In a Republican race that has always been about conviction and heart versus Romney’s calibrated competence, this was a big night for Newt. He won not by tearing Romney down but by building himself up. His challenge will be keeping himself in check so that he allows his performance to stand and doesn’t veer off into the zany with a remark that requires several days of explaining. All he has to do is make it through two more days. Then Gingrich will be back on stage Thursday with his rivals, two days before the Saturday vote. It might be the last best shot they have at denying Romney the nomination.