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.
Newt Gingrich started out poorly, having to play some defense of his own as he was pressed about his super PAC-funded assault on Romney’s business record. The issue is a loser and allows Romney to win conservative plaudits by standing up for free enterprise against an attack from the left. But as the evening wore on, Gingrich found his own voice as he scored on the importance of teaching kids to work and on foreign policy, reminding us of how he once rode strong debate performances to a brief stint as the frontrunner.
But Santorum was just as good if not better as Gingrich as the former senator pressed Romney closely on the issues. The same could be said of Rick Perry, who delivered what was probably his best showing in any of the debates, sounding especially eloquent in defense of American servicemen. But coming as it did with his campaign on life support, the only one to benefit from it will probably be Romney, who is counting on the Texas governor drawing off enough votes to make sure that neither Gingrich nor Santorum can achieve an upset.
All three might plausibly expect a slight spike in the polls this week as a result of the debate, but if so, it can only help Romney. With Romney way out in front nationally as well as in the South Carolina polls, the only way any of his rivals can possibly catch him is if the other two collapse. That accounts for the fact that the Gingrich-Santorum non-aggression pact that seemed to characterize their attitudes since Iowa appears to be finished. But with all three showing signs of life, there’s simply no way any one of them can emerge as the single “non-Romney” in the race.
As for Ron Paul, he once again provided some fireworks and a chance for the others to agree as his absurd and inconsistent isolationist stands rightly earned him the scorn of the rest of the field.
But no issue, not even that of the Romney super PAC’s misleading ads, was enough to floor the frontrunner. Though his opponents found their voices, he stayed cool and for the most part answered their attacks easily, even turning the issue of his ads around to launch a well-thought out attack on the liberal “reforms” of campaign finance that made super PACs a way of life. So long as he is able to keep a cool and confident air about him and his opponents are dividing the conservative vote, Romney will have little to worry about this weekend in South Carolina. Even on a night when his rivals bested him from time to time, Romney was able to run out the clock on the debate–leaving his nomination still looking as if it is inevitable.