Republicans Clash In The Battle Of Myrtle Beach

Mitt Romney's rivals scored a few hits on him last night, but nothing that's likely to make a difference.

After last night’s Republican Presidential debate ended in South Carolina and Fox’s Bret Baier was doing a post-debate wrap-up, one could hear the sound of explosions outside. It turned out that someone decided that it would be a good idea to conclude the festivities with fireworks (which was odd mostly because everyone was still inside the debate hall), but one might have been forgiven for believing that the exciting generated in the hall had inspired South Carolinians to bomb Fort Sumter again. For a race that most analysts believe is nearly over, and in which all but possibly two of the candidates on the stage have no credible case for going forward after Saturday, it was as energetic as if there were a four way tie for first place:

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Mitt Romney withstood forceful attacks during a debate here on Monday evening, with his Republican rivals lining up to question his job-creation record, wealth and character, as they implored voters to scrutinize his candidacy more deeply before allowing him to sail to the party’s presidential nomination.

With five days remaining before the South Carolina primary, the four other remaining Republican candidates sought once again to raise questions about Mr. Romney’s credentials as an economic manager and his consistency as a conservative.

Yet they failed to goad him into losing his composure or making any major mistakes, and he devoted nearly as much attention to President Obama as he did to the candidates on stage with him.

A spirited crowd of nearly 3,000 Republicans inside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center loudly cheered — and occasionally jeered — throughout the two-hour debate. It was one of the most rollicking presidential debates of the season, with the candidates absorbing instant feedback from voters who will help decide their fate on Saturday.

“My record is out there —  proud of it,” Mr. Romney said. “I think that if people want to have someone who understands how the economy works, having worked in the real economy, then I’m the guy that can best post up against Barack Obama.”

But from the moment the debate began, Mr. Romney was besieged by his opponents, all of whom are trying to survive the winnowing process of the early primaries and emerge as a singular challenger to him. They pointedly called on him to disclose his tax returns, explain whether his corporate buyout firm Bain Capital had created or killed jobs and account for his evolving views on social issues like abortion.

“Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so that the people of this country can see how you made your money,” said Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. “As Republicans, we cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.”

Mr. Romney, a multimillionaire who has declined to release returns that could shed new light on the tax rate that he pays, said he would consider reversing course. But he said he would not do so until April, by which point the Republican competition may well be over.

Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, defended the withering criticism he has helped lead of Mr. Romney’s business background. Mr. Gingrich said he was not attacking American capitalism and, if anything, was fulfilling a duty to the party so it knew its nominee’s vulnerabilities before making a final choice about who should face Mr. Obama in the general election.

“We need to satisfy the country,” Mr. Gingrich said, “that whoever we nominate has a record that can stand up to Barack Obama in a very effective way.”

Here in South Carolina, the third stop in the Republican nominating contest, the airwaves are filled with ads from candidates and groups known as “super PACS” that support the candidates without being directly tied to their campaigns. The advertisements provoked a series of lively exchanges between Mr. Romney and his rivals.

Mr. Gingrich sarcastically dismissed Mr. Romney’s protestations that he had nothing to do with a super PAC ad attacking Mr. Gingrich. He said Mr. Romney’s defense “makes you wonder how much influence he would have if he were president.”

In reply, Mr. Romney said the outside group supporting Mr. Gingrich was showing an anti-Romney documentary that has been widely criticized for its misleading claims about Mr. Romney’s work at Bain Capital. He called it “probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.”

Yet Mr. Gingrich, who is trailing Mr. Romney narrowly in some polls here, was in top debate form and often seemed to overshadow Rick Santorum, who is battling Mr. Gingrich to emerge as a more conservative alternative to Mr. Romney.

In fact there were several moments during the debate when Newt Gingrich displayed the fiery debate persona that we’ve seen in previous debates, which got the crowd behind him and cheering. One came when Juan Williams returned to an old issue, Gingrich’s comments about having poor students perform light janatorial work in schools as a way of teaching them the value of work:

At least as far as  the crowd was concerned, Newt won that exchange, along with another one later in the evening regarding extending unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits, in Gingrich’s world, should be tied to some form of job training or education rather than just a handout. The line that won that particular round for Gingrich boiled down to “99 weeks is an Associates Degree.” This is the Newt Gingrich of October and November, the one who seemed like the master debater who could take on Barack Obama in the fall. Of course, that was all before his negatives started coming back to the fore and before he spent the past week attacking private enterprise in a desperate attempt to take down Mitt Romney, so it’s hard to tell if anything that happened last night will really change the tenor of the race. However, if anyone walked away a winner on points last night it was Newt Gingrich.

If anyone walked away with the worst debate performance of the night, it was Ron Paul and it was because of his responses on military and foreign policy issues. It’s not surprising, really, that a state with a large population of active duty and retired military which is also home to The Citadel would not react quite as positively to a non-interventionist message as Iowa and New Hampshire did. However, Paul stuck his foot in his mouth several times and the crowd let him know it. First, he completely fumbled a response to a question about how cutting military spending would affect a state like South Carolina, at one point suggesting that he really wouldn’t be cutting military spending all that much after all. Then, he stepped in it by implying that he thought the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden was improper. For the first time I’ve seen in any of these debates, Paul lost the crowd and never got it back. At the moment, Paul is at about 14% in the polls in the Palmetto State. After last night, I would be surprised if he rose any higher than that.

As noted above, though, a large portion of the debate last night ended up focusing on SuperPAC’s and representations made by supporters of one candidate or another regarding one of the other candidates.  Mitt Romney argued with Gingrich over the Bain attack ads put out by Winning Our Future. Rick Santorum argued with Romney over a SuperPAC ad that said that Santorum had voted to restore voting rights to violent felons. This last one actually turned into a policy debate when Santorum tried to get Romney to state his position on the issue, citing the fact that it was Martin Luther King Jr Day. It was a bizarre exchange from my end, mostly because the entire issue is one that is controlled at the state, not the federal level. As Santorum himself pointed out, when Romney was Governor Massachusetts had a very liberal law about restoration of voting rights for felons, but it strikes me that Romney was right when he pointed out that this is a choice that each state should make on their own. As for the entire SuperPAC issue itself, I still can’t believe that it actually moves voters. Time and again, we’ve learned in politics that the only people who care about process stories are the reporters, the insiders, and the candidates themselves. This SuperPAC issue doesn’t strike me as something that’s going to move voters, which is why it’s bizarre that the last three debates have spent so much time focusing on it.

For the better part of the night, though, the attention was all on Mitt Romney, winner of the last two contests, frontrunner in South Carolina and Florida, and in some people’s minds the person most likely to win the Republican nomination. This was not Romney’s strongest debate by far. He stumbled in the exchange noted above, for example, and also when confronted by Rick Perry over the question of when he would release his tax returns. He also had an awkward answer when asked if he’d been hunting recently (really, who cares about that one Bret Baier?), stumbling through an answer about having been Elk hunting in Montana and pheasant hunting but then pointing out that the real hunter on the stage was Rick Perry. When it came to the substances of the night and the areas where he knew was going to be attacked, however, Romney was on much firmer footing. His answer on the Bain Capital issue is one that, quite honestly, should put the issue to bed at this point notwithstanding the ongoing SuperPAC ad campaign.

The bigger point is the fact that Mitt Romney is in a position right now where he can afford to take hits like the ones he took last night, none of which were even close to being fatal, and even turn in a less than stellar debate performance without really having to worry about how it will impact the race. This is largely because, as Jonathan Tobin put it, Romney’s rivals are running out of time:

With only five days left until the crucial South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney​’s Republican rivals know that time is running out for them to catch up with the frontrunner. So it was little surprise that Newt Gingrich​, Rick Santorum​ and Rick Perry​ came out fighting at the Fox News​/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach. The result was a lively two hours of sharp exchanges between the candidates that made for better television than almost all of the 15 GOP debates that preceded it. But although Romney spent most of the night trying to fend off attacks and Gingrich, Santorum and even Perry all had strong performances, the evening ended as it began with the former Massachusetts governor still in position to put a stranglehold on the nomination with a victory in South Carolina.

Romney took hits on his business record and his record of flip-flopping throughout the debate. But as he has done in most of the earlier debates, he kept his cool and responded strongly when he got the chance. Though he was not able to spend as much time attacking President Obama as he liked, Romney still emerges as the victor if for no other reason than the fact that his invigorated opponents are all still splitting the conservative vote making it nearly impossible for any one of them to catch the leader.

Josh Kraushaar agrees, as does Zeke Miller:

The good thing for Romney was that each candidate made that case so well. Santorum had his best debate of the cycle, while Gingrich recovered from weak New Hampshire performances.

Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom conceded that other than their attacks on his candidate, it was among the men’s best debate showing. He shared it, of course, because their dual success prevents social conservatives from coalescing around a candidate.

If that holds through Saturday, Romney is likely to run away with it against a divided field.

That pretty much sums it up. If these attacks had started a month ago,or more, then maybe they’d mean something. However, for some strange reason, Mitt Romney was able to sail through nearly all of the Republican debates before the Iowa Caucuses completely unscathed. Outside of the expected criticism of “RomneyCare” or his alleged flip-flopping, he got off pretty easy most of the time. If this were November, then maybe these attacks, and Romney’s stumbling, would matter. At this point in the race though, and as long as the opposition to Romney remains divided between two or three candidates, then Romney has very little to worry about. As far as the polls go, this debate might move the needle a little bit in Gingrich’s direction, but its worth remembering that there will be another debate Thursday night, and Romney has never let himself made the same mistakes twice. He’ll be ready, and Gingrich and Santorum are unlikely to walk away feeling quite as good as they did last night.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. sam says:

    The Order of the Tin Ear with Oak Leaves goes to Major Malfunction (CSA, R. Texas):

    South Carolina is at war with this federal government.

    Just down the road from Fort Sumter. All those yahoos in that cream-colored audience better take care.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Elvis Costello:

    Oh I used to be disgusted
    and now I try to be amused.

    Before last night I was amused by the Republican field…now I’m disgusted.
    An endorsement for child labor.
    A standing ovation for rank racism.
    Fomenting violence.
    Rejection of habeus corpus.
    Booing the Golden Rule.
    And lies. A bushel and a peck of lies.
    These clowns have no serious new domestic policy ideas…and their foreign policy ideas are dangerous. This is not hyperbole…dangerous.
    But you are right…Romney will still be the nominee. Plastic, sleazy, pandering, flip-flopping Mitt.

  3. Unemployment benefits, in Gingrich’s world, should be tied to some form of job training or education rather than just a handout.

    How about tying them to me having paid for them for years? Collecting insurance benefits that I bought with my own money is not a handout.

  4. Fiona says:

    I decided against watching the debate last night. The clips I’ve seen have only reinforced my judgment, especially the clip of a sanctimonious Gingrich vowing to “educate” the poor on how to get jobs. I guess it’s never occurred to him that most of the poor have jobs, work hard, and are nonetheless falling farther and farther behind.

    And seeing the audience boo Juan Williams for daring to ask a question about the implied racism of Gingrich’s remarks about “the food stamp” president? Charming.

  5. MBunge says:

    “he spent the past week attacking private enterprise in a desperate attempt to take down Mitt Romney”

    Remember kids! You’re never, ever, ever allowed to question anything any businessman ever does for any reason or on any grounds. If a businessman does it, it’s automatically and undeniably good!

    Mike

  6. Barb Hartwell says:

    Our country has become party blind. When people would choose anyone of the GOP candidates over Obama. It has to be race, because anybody who listened to these guys without ever seeing them would dismiss them as crazy. We have heard about most of their dirty laundry and we are pushed to dismiss it. This is not right, our country needs a good leader and with all the money spent on the campaign you would think we would have almost flawless candidates to choose from

  7. An Interested Party says:

    We have heard about most of their dirty laundry and we are pushed to dismiss it.

    During the general election campaign the country will probably be drenched in this dirty laundry and it will not be easily dismissed…