Gingrich and Santorum shined in a boisterous debate. Can a flustered Romney hold them off in South Carolina?
And Santorum and Gingrich slugged it out all night. They traded blows over whether Gingrich was too arrogant to lead. Gingrich said Santorum's accomplishments were too small. Santorum said Gingrich was "grandiose," which made him unpredictable. He portrayed himself as an unflashy Steady Eddie, whereas with Gingrich voters would always have to worry that “something’s going to pop." Romney joined in, puncturing Gingrich's claims about helping Ronald Reagan. “I looked at the Reagan diary, you’re mentioned once," he said, pointing out that the reference was Reagan saying Gingrich had an idea that wasn't a particularly good one. Romney's campaign sent a press release out listing all of Gingrich's grand claims about himself—comparing himself to everyone from William Wallace to Pericles.
Gingrich responded grandiosely, listing his accomplishments, from creating a Republican majority in 1994 to passing welfare reform to balancing the budget. "You're right. I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things. And we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.”
Romney did not have a great night. He clearly decided that he would show a more forceful side than he did in the last debate. He was at his best when he defended the free-market system behind his career at Bain. He said that he found it “strange” that the attacks were coming from Republicans, saying he expected them to come from Obama. When Gingrich suggested that Romney had profited because of the laws that Gingrich had passed in Washington, Romney turned it against him—saying that when he was in the private sector he didn't wring his hands wondering how Washington could help him.
He ignored one question about Bain and attacked Obama as a crony capitalist. The point was to show that Newt Gingrich wasn't the only one who could take it to Obama in the fall. “I know we’re going to get hit hard from President Obama,” Romney said, “But we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.” (Ashley Parker of the New York Times dubbed this the foie gras strategy).
Romney's weakest moment once again came when talking about his tax returns. Asked if he would follow his father's example of releasing 12 years of tax returns when he ran for president, Romney said "maybe." He seemed unprepared for the question. Gingrich said releasing the returns would let voters know if there was anything they should worry about before the general election. If there was nothing to worry about, why not release them? Santorum amused the audience when he said he could not release his taxes at the moment, saying: “I do my own taxes. They’re on my computer and I’m not home.” (Oddly, he also chose this moment to go into a sort of Southern accent.)
South Carolina Republicans like to boast that they pick presidents. Every GOP nominee since 1980 has won the South Carolina primary. That was what had once led Newt Gingrich to say if Romney won it would pretty much be all over. But after the debate , he said he would continue no matter what the result. Romney may win on Saturday, but it won't be the death-blow many expected. It has been a bruising week for the front-runner. He'll be happy to stand on the winner's platform no matter what the margin, but it looks like he's going to have to keep fighting on.