Newt Wins, CNN Loses, The Battle Of Charleston
Last night’s Republican debate in South Carolina came at the end of one of the most tumultuous 24 hours the campaign has seen to date. From Newt Gingrich’s rise in the polls, to the continued revelations about Mitt Romney’s tax returns, to Rick Perry dropping out, to Newt’s ex-wife, the news cycle in South Carolina has shifted rapidly from one topic to another. Going into the final debate before the biggest primary to date, though, one would have thought that they would have started out talking about the economy and jobs, especially in a state where the unemployment rate is 9.9%. You might have thought that, but you would have been been wrong:
Oh, it’s on.
John King opened the debate by asking Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife’s claims to ABC News that they had an “open marriage,” and he turned it into an attack on CNN, ABC News, and “the elite media.”
Asked if he wanted to respond to her claims as the first question of the debate, Gingrich said, “No. But I will. I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country.”
He added, to huge applause, “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
“Every person in here knows personal pain. … to take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” he said. “I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.”
Here’s the video:
Going into this debate I wondered if the question would even come up at all. Gingrich had already spoken about it earlier in the day, saying the same thing that he did in the debate, and given the way the race has gone this week it was incredibly unlikely that any of the other candidates would jump at the opportunity to criticize Newt over issues regarding his personal life from 13 years ago. I certainly didn’t think that John King would lead the debate off with this type of question. King defended asking the question after the debate saying that it was “the lead story.” Perhaps this is is true, but did it really need to be the first question? I’m not so sure. In any event, Gingrich was obviously prepared for the question, though, and say what you will about the man the crowd was behind him, giving him his second standing ovation in a row.
As a viewer, it felt like it took several minutes after the Gingrich-King dress down for the mood in the debate hall to calm down but when it did it was “Advantage: Gingrich” for the rest of the night:
The new dynamic at play in the campaign was apparent on the stage, which looked starkly different from those of previous debates, with only four lecterns after the departures of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas from the race earlier in the day and Jon M. Huntsman Jr. on Monday.
With Mr. Gingrich gaining in polls against Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum seeking momentum on news that he had the most votes in the Iowa caucuses, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas fighting to get back into the mix after campaigning only lightly here, no candidate had a free pass.
To the extent that any of the other candidates were hoping to seriously knock Mr. Romney off stride, none seemed to do so to any substantial degree, though they collectively pushed him hard on the similarities between his health care plan and the one championed by President Obama, and on his previous support for abortion rights during his political career in Massachusetts.
“I’m not questioned on character and integrity very often,” Mr. Romney responded, adding, “I don’t feel like standing here for that.”
After Mr. Santorum implied that Mr. Romney was of the sort who would “whisper into the microphone that they’re pro-life” as opposed to people like him who “go out and fight the battle,” Mr. Romney said sternly, “I did my very best to be a pro-life governor. I will be a pro-life president.”
Mr. Gingrich, who released his tax returns as the debate was under way, smiled with satisfaction when Mr. King raised the question of whether Mr. Romney would do the same.
Mr. Romney joked about his new status as an also-ran in Iowa, saying that he wished he could go back and win more votes there. If there was a worst moment for Mr. Romney, it was when he was asked by Mr. King whether he would follow the lead of his father, who released 12 years of tax returns when he was running for president in 1968.
“Maybe,” he said at first drawing some laughter but then boos from the crowd when he went on to say, “I don’t know how many years I’ll release. I’ll take a look at what our documents are.”
But as much as anything, the campaign at this stage is about the competition to be the leading conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, a scrum involving Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul — some of whose supporters were in the crowd and let their displeasure be known when they believed he was being neglected by Mr. King.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich went after each other with considerable vigor if not venom, at one point leaving Mr. Romney to stand aside to watch, relaxed and smiling.
Mr. Santorum delivered a detailed and blistering critique questioning Mr. Gingrich’s ability to serve in the Oval Office. He pointedly accused his rival of “grandiose” views that would cloud his judgment and interfere with the leadership required of a chief executive. He accused him of turning a blind eye to the check-writing scandal in Congress.
He accused Mr. Gingrich of showing “no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together,” in Congress, and said he presented the frequent “worrisome moment that something’s going to pop.” By contrast, he said, “I’m not the most flamboyant and I don’t get the biggest applause lines here, but I’m steady. I’m solid. I’m not going to go out and do things that you’re going to worry about.”
Mr. Gingrich sought to belittle his opponent and fired back dismissively, saying, “Long before Rick came to Congress, I was busy being a rebel.” He said that he would not apologize for proposing bold ideas and presenting big views.
There’s no real question that Newt Gingirch walked away the winner last night, not just because of the showdown with John King, but because he continued to hit on the same themes that he did in Monday night’s debate and that he has all week in the Palmetto State. As inexplicable as many observers, myself included, may find it Gingrich has hit a never with conservatives who are looking for an alternative with Mitt Romney just like he did in December and, this time, they don’t seem inclined to jump ship unless and until they have absolutely have to. As far as the personal issues go, Newt Gingrich has latched on to conservative anger at the media to push back against charges that, for the most part, everyone already knows about anyway, and it’s working. Ironically, it’s the same strategy that worked for Bill Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992. Clinton did not “win” that primary but he managed to turn a strong second place to Paul Tsonags into momentum that sent him straight to the White House. Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, stands a good chance of winning South Carolina and possibly changing the course of this race completely. If that happens, it will at least in part be because of the way he handled John King’s question last night.
While Newt Gingrich repeated the successes of Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney for some reason decided to continue making some of the same mistakes he made in Monday’s debate, mistakes that have dogged him all week and no doubt continued to his slide in the polls. On the question of when he’s going to release his tax returns, Romney continued to completely flub the answer:
David Weigel says, correctly, that Romney totally blew the question. Jonathan Cohn, meanwhile, if there isn’t something in the returns that would be truly damaging. Whatever the reason, it’s fairly astounding at this point, but it’s really rather obvious that the Romney campaign doesn’t have an answer for when Romney is going to release his tax returns other than “sometime in April,” or how many years back they are going release returns for, keeping in mind that Romney’s father released 12 years of tax returns voluntarily during the 1968 campaign. Newt Gingrich has an answer, and in fact released his return for 2010 last night. Rick Santorum has an answer, he said he does his own taxes on TurboTax and will release them when gets home and gets on his computer. Ron Paul has an answer, he said he doesn’t plan on releasing his returns at all. Why hasn’t the Romney campaign come up with an answer that puts this issue to bed already? It’s a stupid process question to some extent, but the longer they let it hang out there, the worse it gets for them.
I suppose I should mention the other candidates too. Rick Santorum actually had a fairly strong debate performance, hitting both Romney and Gingrich for their deviations from conservative principles on issues like health care. Ron Paul was, well, Ron Paul. It’s clear, though, that the real dynamic last night was between Romney and Gingrich and that the remainder of the race, no matter how long it lasts, is going to be a fight between the two of them. Of the remaining men on the stage, it’s possible we’ll hear from Rick Santorum again. If the GOP doesn’t win in 2012 I could see him being the Mike Huckabee of this cycle, with speculation turning to him in 2015 regarding another run. Ron Paul, of course, is in the middle of his swan song and won’t be running for anything again after this race.
In his commentary on the debate, E.D. Kain makes a point that I think explains quite well why Romney’s past is becoming a bigger problem than Gingrich’s right now:
The difference between Romney and Gingrich is that we’re all pretty sure we know the details of Gingrich’s dirty laundry by now. Even his ex-wife’s tell-all interview isn’t going to shine any new light on the former speaker.
Romney, on the other hand, remains something of a closed book. I bet that makes some voters nervous.
The devil you know can be a comfortable vote, and at this point I think a lot of conservatives are taking a second look at Gingrich whose warts they’ve basically come to terms with. His response to the accusations leveled at him by his ex-wife on ABC had the audience in a standing ovation, effectively turning a damning revelation into just another reason to go after the mainstream media.
One has to admire Gingrich’s tenacity at moments like these even if 90% of what he says is absolute garbage.
We know who Newt Gingrich is – but what lies beneath Romney’s slick exterior? Republicans can’t be certain. Will it give them pause this Saturday in South Carolina?
That certainly seems to be what’s likely to happen. The RealClearPolitics polling average still shows Mitt Romney with a lead, but it’s a very narrow vote at this time, but the momentum has been with Gingrich for days now. This is why Nate Silver’s election forecasting model gives Newt Gingrich a 63% chance of winning the South Carolina Primary and Romney only a 38% chance, that’s almost an exact reversal of where the model was just this past weekend. The rest of Kain’s argument seems completely spot-on to me. Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, and there’s plenty to say, but we pretty much already know everything there is to know about the man’s past, and many people seem to be discounting it at this point. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is still a mystery to a lot of people and when he does things like fail to come up with a clear, coherent answer on a simple question like releasing his tax returns it reinforces that doubts that people already have. Until Romney deals with that, he’s going to have a problem.
Ever since Monday night’s debate, the wind in South Carolina has been at Newt Gingirch’s back and in Mitt Romney’s face. Nothing that happened last night seems likely to change that one bit. In fact, if anything I would say that Gingrich’s momentum will increase over the next two days, which is exactly what you want to have happen if you’re running a campaign. A Gingrich victory in South Carolina seemed implausible just a week or two ago, but that’s just a reflection of how fast this race is moving right now. We’ve gone from Romney in trouble to Romney on the verge of sweeping the January primaries, and now we’re back at Romney in trouble again. Attention will shift after tomorrow to Florida where Romney now holds a seemingly insurmountable lead. Of course, he had a seemingly insurmountable lead in South Carolina just a week or two ago so that may mean nothing. Hang on, this one isn’t over just quite yet