CHARLESTON, S.C.— Newt Gingrich said "No." Mitt Romney said "Maybe." And Rick Santorum said everything better than he has in any other debate. The last Republican debate before Saturday’s South Carolina primary—and the first with just four candidates—was perhaps the most lively of the 17 that have come during this campaign.
It was a battle on two fronts: Front-runner Romney was attacked by his rivals, and Gingrich and Santorum skirmished repeatedly in order to emerge as the sole alternative to Romney. There were sharp exchanges over health care and temperament, over open marriages and closed borders.
The South Carolina primary is 36 hours away, and the debate capped one of the nuttiest campaign days in recent memory. Mitt Romney's lead is slipping, but we don't know by how much. Iowa Republicans declared Santorum the new winner of their caucuses, overturning Romney’s eight-vote victory. Rick Perry quit his campaign (perhaps just to avoid another debate) and endorsed Gingrich. Gingrich, the candidate of the moment, suddenly faced accusations from his ex-wife, who claimed he had advocated for an "open marriage," when he was having an affair with the woman who sat in the debate audience as his current wife.
Debates never live up to the opening montage networks play before the candidates are introduced. CNN called this one "The Fight for the South," making it sound like the four contenders would go at it with dull knives. But this debate's opening exchange surpassed the hype. CNN moderator John King asked Newt Gingrich if he would like to address his ex-wife's report earlier in the evening on ABC that he had asked for an "open marriage." His answer: "No." He then went on to denounce CNN and John King at length with barely restrained anger. He denied his ex-wife's charge and offered only brass-knuckle contrition. Talking about how everyone in the audience had known personal pain, he concluded: "To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." (For a historian, he has a low bar for despicable.)
It was Gingrich's second debate in which he received a standing ovation. After the first five minutes, it looked like it would once again be Gingrich's night. Republican voters in South Carolina want to beat Barack Obama badly. When they've seen Gingrich advocating for conservative principles, battling with rivals and moderators, they can imagine him taking on the president just as forcefully.
Rick Santorum, overshadowed in the first South Carolina debate, wasn't going to let that happen again. He launched into a sustained attack on Romney and Gingrich over their support of the individual mandate. "Governor Romney tells a very nice story about what his plan is now. It wasn't his plan when he was in a position to do a plan," he said. Ending Obama's health care plan will be a signature fight of the fall campaign and Santorum was the only one of the three who was not compromised on that issue: "These are two folks who don't present the clear contrast that I do."
Santorum so flustered Romney that in a response, the front-runner used the perjorative "Romneycare" to refer to the health care plan passed when he was governor of Massachusetts, the political equivalent of getting Mister Mxyzptlk to say his name backward.
Santorum gave a series of other strong answers advocating for middle-class voters "paddling alone" in the economy, and nailed a question on China by pushing for his tax plan, which would zero out corporate taxes for companies that manufacture products in America. Of each candidate's closing remarks his, identifying himself as a conservative who had not compromised, were the strongest.
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.