Mitt Romney took the brunt of the attacks in last night's first South Carolina debate (there's one more on Thursday), with all the other remaining candidates looking to bring the front-runner back to the pack. Depending on who you ask, he either took it on the chin or deftly blocked their swords, but everyone agrees that he's the one with the bulls-eye on his back.
The lusty Myrtle Beach crowd was vocal and enthusiastic, applauding loudly for their favorite attack lines and booing moderators for questions they didn't like. The Washington Post's The Fix said that some candidates were "vamping" for the crowd, throwing out their most hard-hitting talking point to garner huge reactions for the benefit of those at home.
The New York Times says that despite the raucous crowd, Romney's opponents "failed to goad him into losing his composure or making any major mistakes," but that this debate made clear that the "rough-and-tumble tone of the campaign was going to continue." The Washington Post digressed slightly saying that Romney was "unnerved" and "caught off balance." They adding that given the large number of debates so far opponents have figured out which attacks are mostly likely to upset Romney, though The Los Angeles Times says the blows from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich "may have canceled out either candidate's chances of emerging as Romney's key challenger." The New Yorker said that Romney ultimately won the debate, "but it was the victory of a man who had narrowly survived an attempted mugging."
Here are some of the biggest moments for each candidate:
Santorum, the prosecutor
Early in the debate, Santorum used a lawyer-like "trap" to nail Mitt Romney on voting rights for felons. The issue isn't exactly a hot button issue for GOP voters, but it allowed Santorum to a) look tough by hectoring Romney several times for an answer, b) catch Romney in a apparent contradiction/flip-flop and c) name drop Martin Luther King while taking a stand for black people, an issue he has been particularly shaky on. He scored points, but probably not on the issues he would have preferred.
Ron Paul was ... Ron Paul
Paul had the most trouble with the South Carolina crowd (Politico called it a "drubbing"), particularly when criticizing our approach to killing, rather than capturing terrorists. At one point, he compared Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan to a Chinese dissent seeking asylum in the United States, which other candidates quickly seized on. ("Utterly irrational," according to Newt Gingrich.) Of course, being the outlier is nothing new for Paul and, as usual, he didn't cave in to the crowd just to get the cheap applause lines.
Gingrich remains politically incorrect
Gingrich's big moment came in a feisty exchange with moderator Juan Williams, who asked if black Americans should be insulted by Gingrich's claims that poor kids lack work ethic and that African-Americans should "demand jobs, not food stamps." Gingrich defiantly answered no, doubling down on his "put kids to work as janitors" policy and zinging that "only elites despise making money." (A classic applause line that the home crowd ate up.) Williams was booed when he followed up by criticizing Gingirch for calling Obama "a food stamp president," another attack that he dismissed as "politically correct.") Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast said Gingrich's condescending answer to Williams shows not that he's racist, but "clueless" and living in "a cultural and intellectual bubble. A bubble called the Republican Party.
Perry caught off guard
Perry, who was largely irrelevant in the race and the debate, got tripped on a tricky foreign policy question when asked if Turkey should be kicked out of NATO. Perrry compared the country's leaders to Islamic terrorists (suggesting the answer is "yes") and questioned whether the U.S. should send them any foreign aid at all. He also took heat online for invoking murdered journalist Daniel Pearl in a defense of the Marines who were caught urinating on Iraqi corpses. Pearl's colleague John Harwood called it "irrelevant and gross." He did score points, however, for pushing Romney on his tax returns.
Romney under fire
Romney received the most pressure on two early topics: His unreleased tax returns (which he said he will "most likely" but not definitely give up as some point) and his record at Bain Captial, which has become the focal point of this race right now. On this point, it seems capitalism is in the eye of the beholder, as most of the financial reporters we follow seemed to like his answers describing how the companies that he helped shutter were in doomed industries. But it's still not clear if long explanations about the benefits of private equity in the capitalist world will play with everyday voters who just want their jobs back. (Romney also called the Gingrich documentary about him "The biggest hoax since Bigfoot," which is much easier to understand.)
Romney fared much better in the latter half of the debate, when the topics returned to more meat and potatoes Republican issues like the proper way to shoot terrorists. In the end, of course, one couldn't help feeling that no matter much abuse Romney took it wouldn't change the inevitable fact that he is going to be the nominee, and that South Carolina's vote on Saturday is merely the formality that will clinch the nomination. The other candidates need to make bigger dents than the ones they made last night.