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.