Gingrich Wins a Debate, but Can He Stop Romney?

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Monday night's debate in South Carolina finds Gingrich back to his crowd-pleasing self as Romney gets rattled but not rolled.

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The four Republican candidates nipping at Mitt Romney's heels all needed a breakout moment at Monday night's debate in South Carolina. One of them -- Newt Gingrich -- got it. He took a question on race as the occasion for a fiery crescendo of righteous indignation, capping it off with a screed against political correctness. The rambunctious crowd in the debate hall ate it up, as, in all likelihood, did the GOP voters watching at home.

If the debate was a contest between Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry to seem the most enticing alternative to Romney, Gingrich took the category, though Santorum and Perry had some good moments too. If it was a contest to knock down Romney, that didn't happen. The front-runner was caught flat-footed with surprising frequency, but while he wobbled mightily -- from walking into a trap on felons' voting rights to mixing up elk and moose -- he retained his composure, and he did not fall down. Ron Paul, whose debate performances largely take place in a world apart from his competitors, was unusually rambling and incoherent; in past debates this cycle, he's been far more agile in defending his unorthodox views.

A breakdown of the night's action:

* Gingrich en fuego. The former speaker is at his best -- or worst, depending on your view -- when he gets worked up about some aspect of the culture that he disagrees with. Thus, a question from co-moderator Juan Williams about whether his statements on welfare and race could be considered offensive was right in Gingrich's wheelhouse, combining as it did '90s flashbacks and an occasion for high dudgeon. First, Gingrich defended his proposal that poor children should work as janitors in schools with a class-based jab: "Only the elites despise earning money," he said, referring presumably to the leisure class of landed gentry that is such a fixture of American society. When Williams followed up, to loud boos from the crowd, Gingrich replied: "First of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know, among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable." 

Though that answer was Gingrich at his most acerbically crowd-pleasing, he was like that most of the night, aside from an awkward first answer defending his attacks on Romney's Bain Capital business experience. This is the Gingrich Republicans fell in love with, zingy and compellingly bombastic. A barrage of attacks set him reeling for a while, but on Monday night, nobody brought up his work for Freddie Mac or his position on immigration. The question is whether, at this late hour, this version of Gingrich can replace the more sordid depiction of him being peddled relentlessly in television ads by the "super PAC" supporting Romney.

* Romney, shaken but not stirred. Romney began the debate seeming cool and collected. He was clearly prepared to parry the attacks on Bain, and he did so smoothly. But then Santorum called upon him to get behind an attack leveled by his super PAC, the accusation that Santorum was soft on felons because he supported letting them regain their voting rights in some circumstances. Santorum, in the attack-dog mode at which he excels, demanded that Romney say where he stood on the issue. When Romney said he did not believe "people who committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote," Santorum pointed out that Massachusetts under Romney had even more lenient rules for felon enfranchisement than the ones Santorum supported. "If in fact you felt so passionately about this, why didn't you try to change that when you were governor?" he asked. Romney's reply was a lame hash of politician-y excuses.

It was only the first of many moments when Romney seemed caught out on a question he should have been able to answer. To demands that he release his tax returns, he fumbled around and eventually suggested he might do so in April. "Time will tell," he said, mysteriously. To a question about his life as a hunter, a topic that embarrassed him soundly four years ago, he couldn't be sure whether he'd stalked elk or moose. To a grilling on super PACs, he professed total innocence of his supporters' attacks even as he claimed them as his own: "I haven't talked to any of the people involved with my SuperPAC for months!" (Gingrich: "Governor Romney's super PAC, over which he claims he has no influence...makes you wonder how much influence he has as president.")

It wasn't all, or even mostly, bad for Romney. For the most part, particularly on foreign affairs, he was polished, and he frequently employed the statesmanlike gimmick of professing agreement with his rivals. But for a guy who's trying to convince his party he has the stature to be the nominee, he has a remarkable way of making himself seem smaller than life.

* Is there enough oxygen for Santorum? A proficient debater, Santorum pinned Romney to the ropes in their exchange on felons. But his display of technical skill was relatively bloodless and came on an issue Republican primary voters aren't particularly agitated about. It was a similar story on Social Security later in the debate: his technically detailed dissertation paled in comparison to Gingrich's emotionally laden diatribes. Attacking Gingrich for proposals Santorum claimed would balloon the deficit, he seemed to be making a progressive argument for taxing the rich: "We're borrowing money from China to pay those millionaires!" Gingrich's response, that what government should spend less on is wasteful programs for low-income people, effectively neutralized the attack. With Gingrich and Santorum battling for the same space in South Carolina Republicans' hearts, it was clear which one made the strongest case Monday.

* Too little, too late for Perry. As was the case in the two New Hampshire debates last weekend, Perry was mostly on his game, articulate and populist. He declared, "South Carolina is at war with this federal government!", a battle cry that smacked of his notorious old hints at Texas secession. He made Romney uncomfortable by posing the tax return issue in strong terms. He argued forcefully against cuts to military spending and condemned the administration's condemnation of the Marines caught urinating on Taliban corpses: "Let me tell you what's utterly despicable, cutting Danny Pearl's head off." (Former colleagues of Pearl, the late Wall Street Journal correspondent executed in Pakistan in 2002, complained on Twitter that he would have disapproved of this example.) But Perry also got caught out on a question about Turkey, calling its leaders "Islamic terrorists." He just plain looked like he had no idea what he was talking about.

* A meandering Ron Paul. The Texas congressman's digressive instincts have mostly been held in check this primary season. In debates, he's often done an impressive job of articulating his libertarian ideals, never backing down from defending even the views -- on topics like Iran or drug legalization -- that are most unpopular in the mainstream of the GOP. But on Monday, he began with an off-putting note of glee at his campaign's attacks on Santorum: "I only had one problem [with the ad]," he said, grinning: "I couldn't get all the things in I wanted to say in one minute!" He might as well have been rubbing his hands together and cackling. Even for an unconventional candidate, it was unseemly. Later in the debate, he got lost in the weeds of foreign policy and appeared to muddle the names of the terrorists he was discussing. Paul's supporters, like their hero, are so driven by pure ideology that such trivial, cosmetic matters as "performance" don't matter to them. But if he was hoping to win converts Monday, that seems unlikely.

Image credit: Reuters/Jason Reed
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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