It was the candidates’ last chance to change the dynamic of the GOP presidential race as they took the stage in Charleston, South Carolina for a CNN debate. The field was whittled down to just four candidates after Rick Perry’s departure earlier in the day. That allowed plenty of time for the GOP hopefuls to contrast their records and stances with their opponents. It was an interesting and substantive debate.
Here is a look at how each candidate fared, followed by winners and losers:
Newt Gingrich: Moderator John King opened the debate by asking the former House Speaker about the recent comments made by his ex-wife Marianne. Gingrich delivered a home run with his answer by belittling the question. He said he was “appalled” that King would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that. The crowd gave Gingrich two standing ovations for his responses. That was just in the first 10 minutes of the debate.
Gingrich is surging in South Carolina based largely on his strong debate on Monday. He had another good performance here. Gingrich had a good back and forth with Rick Santorum, when he was criticized for being erratic. It was a good attack from Santorum, but Gingrich handled it well.
The immigration issue, which hampered Gingrich a few months ago, was brought up again. Gingrich did not change his stance of providing a path to legality for people who have been in the country for 25 years. Immigration hardliners in South Carolina will have a hard time with that one.
However, Newt is a phenomenal debater and he proved it again here. He had several one-liners that elicited great response from the crowd. It was a good night for Gingrich and did nothing to stall his momentum.
Ron Paul: The Texas congressman had a rough debate Monday night. He rebounded very nicely here. Foreign policy was not discussed, so Paul’s views did not alienate mainstream Republicans. He was genial, knowledgeable and did a nice job delivering his message of freedom and liberty.
The one major drawback for Paul was his libertarian views getting in the way of his pro-life stances. Rick Santorum said Paul’s record on federal pro-life legislation is about 50 percent. Paul then made the case that abortion is a state issue. That is likely to turn off evangelical voters in upstate South Carolina. Other than that moment, Ron Paul probably had one of his better debate performances of the campaign.
Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor was coming off his worst debate performance a few days ago. He needed a strong showing here. It wasn’t bad, but it was not as good as it needed to be. Romney was hounded once again on releasing his tax returns. One of his answers elicited boos from the crowd. This will continue to be an issue for the next few months, at least.
Romney had a great line when he talked about his 25 years of business experience and Gingrich trying to take credit for it when he was House Speaker for just four years. Romney also had a nice slam on Gingrich for his continued references to being a “Reagan Republican”, yet earning only one mention in Reagan’s autobiography.
However, Mitt Romney’s stances on healthcare and abortion were effectively questioned by Rick Santorum. Doubts remain about whether or not Romney is trustworthy on conservative issues and those doubts were brought to the forefront in this debate. Romney’s momentum is slipping in South Carolina and he failed to do anything to stop that with this performance.
Rick Santorum: The Iowa Caucus winner needed a big night. He stayed on the offensive throughout, and did a very good job of pointing out the flaws in his opponents’ records. Santorum scored against Gingrich on immigration, against Paul and Romney on the life issue, and against Romney again on RomneyCare. However, he might have turned some people off with the repeated attacks.
The former Pennsylvania senator had the chance to close out the two-hour debate with his pitch and it was a strong one, encouraging South Carolinians to support the conservative in the race the way they did with Reagan in 1980.
This is a cosmetic issue, but on TV it is important. Santorum’s forehead was shiny throughout the night. A light was glaring off it. Appearances matter in televised debates. Overall though, Santorum had a good night.
Winners: Gingrich, followed by Santorum. Newt started strong by dismantling the moderator and that set the tone for the debate. Santorum did well contrasting his record with the others, though it might not have been enough to change the race.
Loser: Mitt Romney. His lead over Gingrich in South Carolina is slipping away. This debate probably expedited the fall.
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