Commentary Magazine


Topic: GOP debate

Romney, Santorum Back Out of Debate?

Mitt Romney was the first to announce earlier this afternoon he’ll skip the March 1 CNN Georgia debate:

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul emails over to confirm, “Gov. Romney will be spending a lot of time campaigning in Georgia and Ohio ahead of Super Tuesday. With eight other states voting on March 6, we will be campaigning in other parts of the country and unable to schedule the CNN Georgia debate. We have participated in 20 debates, including 8 from CNN.”

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Mitt Romney was the first to announce earlier this afternoon he’ll skip the March 1 CNN Georgia debate:

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul emails over to confirm, “Gov. Romney will be spending a lot of time campaigning in Georgia and Ohio ahead of Super Tuesday. With eight other states voting on March 6, we will be campaigning in other parts of the country and unable to schedule the CNN Georgia debate. We have participated in 20 debates, including 8 from CNN.”

CBS NJ’s Sarah Boxer, who broke the story on Mitt backing out, now reports that Rick Santorum “has no plans of doing [the debate] right now,” according to his spokesperson.

It doesn’t make sense for Santorum to do the debate if Romney isn’t participating, as it would likely turn into a slap-fest between him and Newt Gingrich, which Santorum doesn’t need right now. Also, if CNN had decided to cancel the event after Romney dropped out, it would have undercut Santorum’s attempts to position himself as the Republican frontrunner.

The biggest loser from all this? Clearly Gingrich. The debates are where he shines, and the less debates between now and Super Tuesday, the less of a chance he has of regaining the ground he lost after South Carolina.

Romney previously criticized the number of debates the candidates have had to participate in, and hinted he might start sitting some out. This move shows the candidates now have more sway than the networks when it comes to deciding when and where they debate each other.

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Live Blog: The GOP Debate

The debate ends. Winners: Santorum and Romney. Loser: Gingrich. Paul: barely there.

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On electability, Romney says the question is whether the US will become more like Europe or remain strong. Says he’s a DC outsider and a businessman and that’s what the American people will want. Gingrich says he won in 94 and that he’s running for his grandchildren and that only big ideas can win. Santorum calls out Romney and Gingrich on global warming “hoax” and the bank bailout. Says he’s the one who can win Reagan Democrats.

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Question about faith prompts defense of religious freedom from Mitt and attack on anti-religious bigotry from Newt. His first moment where he’s giving the right what they want to hear. Santorum knocks it out of the park with answer on the connection between faith and the rights guaranteed in the Declearation of Independenc.e Constitution is the how of America, Declaration of Independence is the why. Declaration mentions the Creator and the rights that came from the Creator.

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Puerto Rican statehood? Are they kidding? Santorum answers it’s their own choice.

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Gingrich sees Romney’s support for Israel and attack on Palestinian leadership and raises him one move of the embassy to Jerusalem! Both gave strong answers denouncing Obama’s failures and putting the onus for the lack of peace directly on the Palestinians.

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The debate ends. Winners: Santorum and Romney. Loser: Gingrich. Paul: barely there.

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On electability, Romney says the question is whether the US will become more like Europe or remain strong. Says he’s a DC outsider and a businessman and that’s what the American people will want. Gingrich says he won in 94 and that he’s running for his grandchildren and that only big ideas can win. Santorum calls out Romney and Gingrich on global warming “hoax” and the bank bailout. Says he’s the one who can win Reagan Democrats.

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Question about faith prompts defense of religious freedom from Mitt and attack on anti-religious bigotry from Newt. His first moment where he’s giving the right what they want to hear. Santorum knocks it out of the park with answer on the connection between faith and the rights guaranteed in the Declearation of Independenc.e Constitution is the how of America, Declaration of Independence is the why. Declaration mentions the Creator and the rights that came from the Creator.

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Puerto Rican statehood? Are they kidding? Santorum answers it’s their own choice.

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Gingrich sees Romney’s support for Israel and attack on Palestinian leadership and raises him one move of the embassy to Jerusalem! Both gave strong answers denouncing Obama’s failures and putting the onus for the lack of peace directly on the Palestinians.

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So far virtually nothing about the economy. I was about to say nothing about Israel but then a Palestinian asks the question. Romney answers why no peace in the Middle East with strong answer about Palestinian desire to destroy Israel. Vows solidarity as opposed to Obama throwing Israel under the bus.

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Santorum makes strong point about not giving up the fight for a free Cuba. Paul dissents. Romney and Gingrich largely agree.

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Gingrich wins on being closer to Reagan than Romney. But he misses an opportunity to hit Romney on his conservative credentials. He’s having a bad night at exactly the wrong time.

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All the candidates, including Newt, do nicely praising their wives. Romney and Santorum win this question though.

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Question about which Hispanic leaders would be appointed to the Cabinet is an invitation to pander. The candidates don’t disappoint. Blitzer then says after the break there will be a question about first ladies. Ridiculous. Twitter lighting up with jokes about which wife Gingrich will mention. Ouch. A

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Santorum then nails Romney and Gingrich on their past support for the individual mandate. Gingrich tries to draw a distinction, Romney forced to defend his health care law again then promises again that he’ll repeal Obamacare. Santorum won’t let him off the hook though. Says GOP can’t give away the issue. Another strong moment for Santorum. First weak moment for Romney. Says it’s not worth getting angry about. But Santorum continues to hone in on the comparison with Obamacare.

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Question from the audience about health care insurance. No real disagreement among the candidates. All for lowering costs and empowering individuals and opposing Obama and Obamacare.

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Paul nails Gingrich on his balanced budgets in the 90s. Santorum then attacks Gingrich for his unrealistic ideas which he compares to Obama. Bad night for Newt continues.

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Gingrich defends his “grandiose” idea about a moon colony becoming a state. He enjoys this sort of argument but it’s not working for him. However, his line about abandoning space being a sign of national decline isn’t totally wrong. But Romney is right about corporate America not being interested in space colonies. Romney then nails Gingrich on pandering in every state. Gingrich answers that he’s going around learning.

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Paul gets a laugh about sending politicians to the moon. But libertarians don’t want to pay for the rockets.

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Romney asked about Gingrich moon station idea. Says its too expensive then punts on future of NASA while saying he supports manned flights. Gingrich makes some sense about the future of the program but he won’t win with his moon colony idea. He knows it’s just an idea that can’t be paid for.

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Blitzer wastes time asking a question about the release of medical records.

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Santorum says he opposes zeroing out capital gains tax. Ron Paul says he wants to repeal the 16th amendment — the federal income tax. Welcome to libertarian fantasyland.

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Gingrich tries to deflect Blitzer question about his attacks on Romney by blaming moderator. Blitzer doesn’t let him get away with it this time. Romney then says it would be nice if people wouldn’t make attacks they won’t defend at a debate. Romney then demolishes the attack again. Another great moment for Romney. Newt’s not looking like the Lincoln-Douglas guy tonight.

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At the first break: Gingrich attacks on Romney haven’t worked so far. If he was hoping for a repeat of last week, he’s falling short. Romney holding his ground. Santorum did well when given a chance to talk. But that came too seldom.

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Santorum scores big point by saying that attacks on Gingrich’s lobbying and Romney’s money are a giant distraction.

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Gingrich answers by saying that Romney owns Fannie and Freddie Mac investments and Goldman Sachs. Romney answers his investments are in a blind trust made in a Mutual Funds not stocks. Then adds that Gingrich has the same kind of investments. And that it’s not the same as promoting them for money as Gingrich did. Gingrich then says Romney should have given instructions to his blind trust. This attack fell flat.

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Romney starts in on Freddie Mac and says they needed a whistle-blower not a horn-tooter as Gingrich was.

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Wolf Blitzer calls Romney on his “language of the ghetto” ad aimed at Gingrich. He recovers quickly by asking whether Newt said it. Gingrich says it’s out of context. That saves Romney a bit.

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Santorum tears into this topic with passion attacking Obama for not being willing to stand up for democracy and to combat the threat of radical Islam. This is one of his best issues.

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Question about Iran and Islamists infiltrating Latin America. Ron Paul answer: free trade, including with Cuba. Translation: He’s not that interested in what Islamists do.

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Santorum and Paul wondering right now whether they’ll ever get back into the debate.

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Gingrich backs up his “anti-immigrant” charge at Romney. Romney demands an apology and accuses him of being over the top. Big applause from the audience. First blow landed. Gingrich asks how else would you describe his position. Romney calmly says that being in favor of enforcing the law doesn’t make you anti-immigrant. Romney: Our problem isn’t 11 million grandmothers. Romney wins the exchange.

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Gingrich criticizes Romney’s stand on “self-deportation” and then mentions his selective service idea for amnesty again. Not exactly a stinging blow. Those expecting him to come out snarling disappointed so far. Romney reiterates his ideas about stopping the illegals. No blows landed on either side.

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Starting off with an audience question on immigration. Santorum answers with his grandfather’s story and his usual routine about illegals being law breakers. Getting so that most of the audience knows these candidates set answers as well as they do.

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Santorum gets the good son award by mentioning his mom in his intro. Newt gets the Navy nod by mentioning a carrier battlegroup. Romney talks about his numerous family as usual. Ron Paul grimly goes into his isolationist rant.

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Seems like the CNN staff did a good job riling up the crowd at the debate. Expecting a lot of fireworks.

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CNN’s John King just rehashed the story about Gingrich’s lie about offering competing witnesses to ABC last week to rebut his ex-wife on the air in the last few minutes before the debate started. Payback. Double ouch.

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Given the nastiness of a lot of the exchanges between the candidates in the last two days, a lot of people are expecting some bitter attacks about Bain, bank accounts and Freddie Mac. I wouldn’t bet against that.

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We’re waiting for the debate to begin. On CNN, Alex Castellanos just compared Gingrich to Goldwater to explain why many conservatives fear his winning the nomination this year. Of course, a lot of conservatives wouldn’t be upset by this comparison. David Frum follows by pointing out that Gingrich’s winning opening at the CNN debate a week ago was based on a lie. Ouch.

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Live Blogging the GOP Debate

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Jacksonville, Florida. So tune in to CNN at 8 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the final four candidates have at it once again in their last such forum before the Florida primary.

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Jacksonville, Florida. So tune in to CNN at 8 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the final four candidates have at it once again in their last such forum before the Florida primary.

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Debate Preview: Will the Audience Fuel a Gingrich Comeback?

In the repeat of a pattern that has characterized the Republican presidential race since last summer, a new batch of opinion polls show that since Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney has not only halted Newt Gingrich’s momentum but has regained the lead in the crucial Florida primary. But with five days left until Florida Republicans vote, the question today is whether Gingrich can use tonight’s debate (8 p.m. on CNN) to reclaim the mantle of conservative insurgent he has so skillfully utilized in the past.

The good news for Gingrich is that unlike Monday’s debate in Tampa where the audience was discouraged from applauding or reacting in any way to the proceedings, CNN is once again encouraging those in the hall in Jacksonville to whoop and holler as much as they like. The lack of audience reaction was seen as helping to tone down Gingrich’s demeanor on Monday. That was in marked contrast to the way he played off the crowd when he challenged CNN moderator John King’s opening question about his second wife’s accusations of misbehavior. That means we can probably expect Gingrich to come out swinging at the media and Romney and hope he can once again induce those in attendance to stand and cheer.

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In the repeat of a pattern that has characterized the Republican presidential race since last summer, a new batch of opinion polls show that since Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney has not only halted Newt Gingrich’s momentum but has regained the lead in the crucial Florida primary. But with five days left until Florida Republicans vote, the question today is whether Gingrich can use tonight’s debate (8 p.m. on CNN) to reclaim the mantle of conservative insurgent he has so skillfully utilized in the past.

The good news for Gingrich is that unlike Monday’s debate in Tampa where the audience was discouraged from applauding or reacting in any way to the proceedings, CNN is once again encouraging those in the hall in Jacksonville to whoop and holler as much as they like. The lack of audience reaction was seen as helping to tone down Gingrich’s demeanor on Monday. That was in marked contrast to the way he played off the crowd when he challenged CNN moderator John King’s opening question about his second wife’s accusations of misbehavior. That means we can probably expect Gingrich to come out swinging at the media and Romney and hope he can once again induce those in attendance to stand and cheer.

That leaves Romney with an interesting dilemma. On Monday night, he directly challenged Gingrich on his past record of leadership failures as well as his Freddie Mac and health care lobbying. Though Romney benefited from going on the offensive, such attacks tonight may give Gingrich an excuse for another contrived tirade with which he hopes to seize control of the debate. That last debate was the first in which it could be said Romney bested Gingrich. A repeat of that performance could doom the latter, because almost all of his recent success has rested on the perception he is a debate champion.

Nevertheless, Romney would be foolish to revert to a frontrunner mentality in which he tried to ignore Gingrich’s attacks. This has been a race in which voters have consistently reacted negatively to candidates who acted as if they had the nomination sewn up. This is especially troublesome for Romney, whose main drawback for GOP voters rests in the perception that he is the establishment choice being imposed on them whether they like it or not. Moreover, Romney knows most conservatives dislike him as a moderate, an image that has allowed a longtime Washington insider like Gingrich to become the favorite of Tea Party voters. The only way Romney can overcome this disadvantage is to remind voters of Gingrich’s character issues and record. Assuming a more aggressive stance toward his opponent can also persuade some Republicans that Romney not only cares deeply about the issues but also is someone who can take on President Obama in the fall.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum, and to a lesser extent Ron Paul, will be fighting for attention and to get a word in edgewise as they did earlier this week. But the focus will almost certainly remain on Gingrich as he tries again to appeal to the audience in the hall as well as those watching on television.

The importance of this debate for Gingrich can’t be overestimated. This is not only the last scheduled GOP debate before Florida but also the last one for almost a month. The last time there was this long a break between debates (back in December), an earlier Gingrich surge collapsed and was followed by his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he is to reverse this latest trend back toward Romney, he must prevail tonight.

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Coming Soon: The Romney-Gingrich Collision

I agree with Jonathan’s assessment of last night’s GOP debate. The only important part of the debate occurred in the first half-hour, when Mitt Romney aggressively prosecuted his case against Newt Gingrich. Gingrich clearly decided he didn’t want a confrontation, probably assuming that doing so would endanger his lead in Florida. The former speaker wanted to float above it all, as best he could, in hopes of selling to the public the narrative of a “new” Newt – a candidate calm, disciplined, and in control of himself.

I’m not sure that strategy is a particularly good one. Gingrich tried that once before, in Iowa, and finished in fourth place after leading by double digits in December. And last week Romney tried the same approach, trying to keep his attacks focused on President Obama even as Romney’s opponents went after him hammer and tong.

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I agree with Jonathan’s assessment of last night’s GOP debate. The only important part of the debate occurred in the first half-hour, when Mitt Romney aggressively prosecuted his case against Newt Gingrich. Gingrich clearly decided he didn’t want a confrontation, probably assuming that doing so would endanger his lead in Florida. The former speaker wanted to float above it all, as best he could, in hopes of selling to the public the narrative of a “new” Newt – a candidate calm, disciplined, and in control of himself.

I’m not sure that strategy is a particularly good one. Gingrich tried that once before, in Iowa, and finished in fourth place after leading by double digits in December. And last week Romney tried the same approach, trying to keep his attacks focused on President Obama even as Romney’s opponents went after him hammer and tong.

Most commentators seem to think Romney bested Gingrich last night. If so, the win wasn’t by a decisive margin, and there were no dramatic moments that matched what Gingrich did twice last week in South Carolina. It certainly won’t change the trajectory of the race in Florida like last week’s debates changed the trajectory of the race in South Carolina. But it may not have to.

The question for the Romney campaign is whether the former Massachusetts governor’s line of attack in the debate, combined with very tough ads being run in Florida, will raise substantial doubts about Gingrich’s public character. My hunch is that what Romney achieved last night is he stopped the bleeding and regained some balance. The polls will probably close a bit in Florida during the next few days. As a result I’d be surprised if, during Thursday’s debate, Gingrich is as passive in the face of Romney’s attacks as he was last night. Gingrich is no fool; he must know that being on the defensive on ethics charges isn’t where he wants to be.

So far in this campaign Romney and Gingrich have taken turns being the aggressor against the other. What will be fascinating to watch is if and when they decide, in the same debate, to go after one another hard, butting heads like a couple of rams. I’d lay some pretty good odds on such a collision happening soon, meaning as early as Thursday night in Jacksonville.

 

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Why the Debate Was Such a Snooze

In his live blogging of the debate last night, Jonathan noted, “If there was a more boring one than this, I don’’t remember it.” That’s for sure.

But why was that? The stakes were just as high as in the previous couple of debates, the debaters were the same (absent Rick Perry, a small loss), the need to strike a knock-out blow as great. So why was it such a snooze?

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In his live blogging of the debate last night, Jonathan noted, “If there was a more boring one than this, I don’’t remember it.” That’s for sure.

But why was that? The stakes were just as high as in the previous couple of debates, the debaters were the same (absent Rick Perry, a small loss), the need to strike a knock-out blow as great. So why was it such a snooze?

The reason, I think, was the audience was under strict orders to shut up and, unfortunately, they did. The seats might as well have been filled with shop-window mannequins. So the “actors” had no one to play against. It was the audiences clapping, laughing, cheering, and booing in the earlier debates that brought those debates to life and lifted the performances of the debaters in the process. It is the interaction between the audience and the actors, after all, that makes live theater so exciting and so different from the movies.

The best description of the interplay between audience and actors I’ve ever seen is by Oscar Hammerstein II, in one of his great, if now undeservedly forgotten, lyrics–“The Big Black Giant.”

A big black giant who looks and listens
With thousands of eyes and ears,
A big black mass of love and pity
And troubles and hopes and fears,
And ev’ry night the mixture’s diff’rent,
Altho’ it may look the same.
To feel his way with ev’ry mixture
Is part of the actor’s game.

If the remaining candidates have any sense, they’ll insist the audience in the Thursday debate be allowed to express their reactions to what the debaters have to say. They are, after all, voters, a rather important part of the democratic process.

 

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Debate Roundup: Romney Strikes Back as Gingrich Plays Defense

At the last two debates in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich took charge with stinging attacks on the moderators and on Mitt Romney. But in the first of two Florida debates this week, Romney took the offensive, landing a number of telling blows on Gingrich. For the first time in this series of debates, the former Massachusetts governor didn’t play the frontrunner attempting to rise above the fray with his only focus on Barack Obama. Instead, he zeroed in on Gingrich’s record as a Washington influence peddler and paid advocate. Though at times he tried to turn the tables on Romney, Gingrich was consistently put on the defensive as he tried to defend his record, leaving him few opportunities to score points or to deliver one of his trademark rants at the expense of those hosting the debate.

In the midst of what was one of the most boring of all the GOP debates it was a good night for Romney and may help slow down Gingrich’s momentum. But this was no knockout. Gingrich was on his heels most of the night, but there were no gaffes. Nor is it clear whether merely going on the attack is going to convince conservatives that Romney is their kind of candidate. For all of his aggressiveness and strong arguments about free enterprise, Romney still lacked the ideological passion that helped propel Gingrich back into the lead last week.

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At the last two debates in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich took charge with stinging attacks on the moderators and on Mitt Romney. But in the first of two Florida debates this week, Romney took the offensive, landing a number of telling blows on Gingrich. For the first time in this series of debates, the former Massachusetts governor didn’t play the frontrunner attempting to rise above the fray with his only focus on Barack Obama. Instead, he zeroed in on Gingrich’s record as a Washington influence peddler and paid advocate. Though at times he tried to turn the tables on Romney, Gingrich was consistently put on the defensive as he tried to defend his record, leaving him few opportunities to score points or to deliver one of his trademark rants at the expense of those hosting the debate.

In the midst of what was one of the most boring of all the GOP debates it was a good night for Romney and may help slow down Gingrich’s momentum. But this was no knockout. Gingrich was on his heels most of the night, but there were no gaffes. Nor is it clear whether merely going on the attack is going to convince conservatives that Romney is their kind of candidate. For all of his aggressiveness and strong arguments about free enterprise, Romney still lacked the ideological passion that helped propel Gingrich back into the lead last week.

As for Gingrich, his low-key demeanor may have been as much a matter of calculation as circumstance. Having gotten back on top, he may think he needs to act a bit more presidential in order to convince wavering Republicans he can win. But the price he paid for this more decorous presence was a low-key presentation that betrayed little of the emotion or fire that conservatives like.

It will be interesting to see whether the recent tilt toward Gingrich can withstand the heightened exposure given to the candidate’s foibles and record. One could argue that if Republicans haven’t cared that much about the Freddie Mac issue or Gingrich’s chaotic leadership while he was speaker of the House up until now, then why should they start taking it seriously now? Nevertheless, Gingrich’s less than satisfactory answers may help chip away at his lead. If the polls show any tilt back in Romney’s direction in the next two days, expect Gingrich to go back to breathing fire at the next debate Thursday night.

Rick Santorum was also on his game, landing some strong punches of his own, especially when he claimed both Gingrich and Romney were relative liberals when compared to him on health care and cap and trade. But with the focus so much on the two top candidates, he struggled at times to get a word in edgewise. Though Santorum needed something to happen to get back into contention, the debate reflected the current state of the race in that at times he seemed as much of an afterthought as libertarian outlier Ron Paul.

It will be interesting to see if Romney can sustain an entire week of going on the offensive, as it is so out of character for him. Nevertheless, the debate was at the very least the first step on the road to a comeback for Romney. He has a long way to go, but unless he keeps it up, there will be no stopping Gingrich in Florida. That means Romney’s presidential hopes are riding on his ability to sustain this aggressive spirit.

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Live Blog: The GOP Debate

Winner: Romney got his shots in and stayed on messge. Loser: Gingrich looked and sounded subdued. Not clear whether this changes much though.

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Gingrich gives meandering answer about presidency. Gingrich uses his question about American greatness to shift to economic agenda. He’s certainly staying on message. The debate ends without Santorum or Paul getting a closing question.

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Romney asked what he’s done to advance conservatism. His answer his family and his business and being elected governor of a liberal state. Not quite the red meat the right wants. Newt lists a life of conservative activism. Santorum tears into them both as liberals on health care and cap and trade. Best moment of the night for him. Paul then explains the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. He’s the latter, not the former.

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After so many debates it’s hard to compare them but if there was a more boring one than this, I don’t remember it.

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Winner: Romney got his shots in and stayed on messge. Loser: Gingrich looked and sounded subdued. Not clear whether this changes much though.

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Gingrich gives meandering answer about presidency. Gingrich uses his question about American greatness to shift to economic agenda. He’s certainly staying on message. The debate ends without Santorum or Paul getting a closing question.

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Romney asked what he’s done to advance conservatism. His answer his family and his business and being elected governor of a liberal state. Not quite the red meat the right wants. Newt lists a life of conservative activism. Santorum tears into them both as liberals on health care and cap and trade. Best moment of the night for him. Paul then explains the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. He’s the latter, not the former.

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After so many debates it’s hard to compare them but if there was a more boring one than this, I don’t remember it.

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Gingrich defends Bush tax cuts.

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Romney says space program should be a priority. Gingrich says we should offer prizes to space entrepreneurs like Lindbergh’s flight to Paris.

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Are they really asking about the Schiavo case? This case hurt Santorum politically when he ran for re-election. His reply is succint and to the point. Then follow-ups with Gingrich and Paul. Hard to believe they’re wasting time on this. Ridiculous. Actually Ron Paul makes a good point about the necessity of having a living will.

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At the third break, Gingrich still hasn’t found a moment when he could go off on the moderators or his opponents. Not his night so far.

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Not sure many people understood Gingrich’s answer on sugar subsidies. Romney more straight forward but then shifts to attack on Obama.

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Romney says if illegals can’t work because of crackdown on documentation, they’ll self-deport. Santorum says illegals continually break the law if they work.

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Romney and Santorum say they’ll veto Dream Act. Gingrich says he would change it to only help vets. Romney says he agrees with that.

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Gingrich asked about English as the national language. Says the language unites the country but there’s nothing wrong with campaigning in other languages. Good answer. And Romney agrees.

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Santorum asked about off-shore oil drilling. Says tourism is hurt more by bad economy than spills. Says tankers are the threat not oil pipelines like the ones cancelled by Obama.

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Santorum says Obama’s Iran policy has been a failure. Says theocrats there can’t have nukes. Iran already has committed acts of war.

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At the second break, Gingrich has recovered a bit but it’s Romney’s night so far.

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Gingrich rightly answers about war weariness by saying America never wants war. Says Obama shows weakness. Then says Obama cancelled joint exercise with Israel. But sources in Israel says Barak did it. Romney says the answer in Afghanistan for dealing with the Taliban is to beat them. Another good moment for him.

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Romney asked about Straits of Hormuz and then turns question into one about Obama’s defense cuts, especially the shrinking navy. Another strong moment.

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Williams asks Romney what he’ll do if Castro dies and a flood of refugees comes. Romney answers Castro should go to his maker and then makes strong point about advancing freedom in Cuba. He was prepared for that. Gingrich answers by matching him and raising him by mentioning covert operations to overthrow communists. Competition for the Cuban exile vote is fierce. Ron Paul wants free trade and says cold war is over. Santorum pushes back against Williams comment about why we don’t do the same for Chinese exiles and rightly says China is not 90 miles off our coast. Santorum then mentions Islamists making leftist allies in Latin America. Strong answer.

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Romney chimes in with an attack on Dodd-Frank. Gingrich dittos. Romney says market wasn’t over-regulated. It was poorly regulated.

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Santorum says defaulting home owners need help. Ron Paul says the government owed them a free market. This is one of those issues where he’s in the right. But then he starts in on the Fed again.

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Santorum finally gets to talk again and references his opposition to Fannie and Freddie runamuck at the time.

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After a half hour, it’s clear that it’s a two man race. Santorum and Paul barely got a word in edgewise.

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At the first break, it’s clear that Romney is on the offensive and scoring points consistently. Gingrich is on the defensive and not doing nearly as well as in previous debates. He keeps trying to turn argument around on Romney but can’t.

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Gingrich asked about Freddie Mac lobbying. Compares his consulting with Romney’s consulting. Romney laughs. Gingrich spins and says its sad that he’s forced about this. Romney reminds him that he said he was paid as a historian. Says historians don’t get paid that kind of money. Gingrich says he was paid for strategic advice based on his historical knowledge. Romney won’t let go of his advocacy for Freddie Mac. Newt keeps trying to compare it to Bain. Gingrich seems momentarily flummoxed. Then says stop acting tough on me as you did with with McCain and Romney. Then says he was proud of his advocacy of Medicare advocacy. Says he did the same thing as any citizen. Romney points out he was paid by drug companies.

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Santorum hits Romney and Gingrich for backing the bailout of the banks. Good populist line even if not realistic.

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Romney talks about creating jobs in his career and not apologizing for free enterprise. This is his best argument.

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Gingrich says he doesn’t want to raise Romney’s taxes but lower everyone else’s. Good answer.

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Romney gets asked about the tax returns. Mitt says no surprises. We all know he’s rich. Romney tries to turn the question into one about the people’s taxes. Says he pays a lot of taxes but not more than he owes.

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Ron Paul says Gingrich didn’t resign out of principle but because he didn’t have the votes to be re-elected speaker. He should know. He was there.

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Ron Paul admits he doesn’t dream about the White House. That’s smart.

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They finally get to Santorum. He starts bragging about his Pennsylvania victories again. 2006 landslide defeat goes, as always, unmentioned. Brian Williams mentions it. Santorum answers and says he stood up for what he believed. That’s true. He did go down fighting for the issues he cared about. But he did go down.

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Gingrich says Romney’s a poor historian and then goes on to whitewash his own record.

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Romney gets to Freddie Mac. Says Gingrich can’t win. Points out Republicans threw him out of the speakership.

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Romney comes out swinging saying Gingrich left Congress in disgrace and has spent his time since as an influence peddler, backing Nancy Pelosi on cap and trade and attacking Paul Ryan. Gingrich replies that it’s all false but won’t answer now. Unfortunately, it’s all true.

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Gingrich takes credit for the achievement of Congress under his speakership and says he took responsibility for his party’s defeats. Good answer if slightly misleading.

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The first question is electability. Newt gets to respond to Romney’s attacks. His response: compare himself to Ronald Reagan. Does he really think he’s another Reagan?

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Is Brian Williams ready to get attacked by Gingrich?

***

The latest GOP debate is about to begin. Will Mitt Romney get aggressive and attack Newt Gingrich head on? Will Gingrich be able to keep attacking the media and dodging questions about his record? Is there anything Rick Santorum can do to get back into contention? And how many times will Ron Paul talk about the Federal Reserve or go into his isolationist rant? We’re about to find out!

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Live Blogging the GOP Debate

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Tampa, Florida. So tune in to NBC at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the final four candidates have at it once again.

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Tampa, Florida. So tune in to NBC at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the final four candidates have at it once again.

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Not the Conservative Movement’s Finest Hour

I know that the conventional wisdom is that in answering last night’s question from CNN’s John King, about whether he had asked his then-wife to enter into an open marriage, Newt  Gingrich “hit it out of the park.” He certainly brought the GOP audience to its feet. He’s winning praise from all sides for how he turned the question into an assault on the mainstream media.

I accept the fact that Gingrich helped himself politically with his answer. He may even win the South Carolina primary tomorrow. (Indeed, I think it’s quite likely that will occur.) But I do think that it’s useful to excerpt the debate transcript and analyze what it might tell us.

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I know that the conventional wisdom is that in answering last night’s question from CNN’s John King, about whether he had asked his then-wife to enter into an open marriage, Newt  Gingrich “hit it out of the park.” He certainly brought the GOP audience to its feet. He’s winning praise from all sides for how he turned the question into an assault on the mainstream media.

I accept the fact that Gingrich helped himself politically with his answer. He may even win the South Carolina primary tomorrow. (Indeed, I think it’s quite likely that will occur.) But I do think that it’s useful to excerpt the debate transcript and analyze what it might tell us.

Here’s how the exchange went:

MR. KING: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

MR. GINGRICH: No — but I will. (Cheers, applause.) I think — I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?

MR. GINGRICH: Let me finish.

MR. KING: Please. (Boos, cheers, applause.)

MR. GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. 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. (Cheers, applause.) My — my two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC, and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it. And I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate. (Cheers, applause.)

The language Gingrich used to describe the media – “destructive,” “vicious,” “negative,” and guilty of reporting “trash”  — is typical of the understatement we’ve come to expect from him. But I want to focus on Mr. Gingrich’s claim that to report this story two days before the South Carolina primary is “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”

Really? Anything Mr. Gingrich can imagine? More despicable than, say, rape? Or murder? Or genocide? Or – just to pull an example out of mid-air — serially cheating on your wives? And to do so when you’re, say, Speaker of the House? During the impeachment of Bill Clinton over crimes that grew out of an affair with an intern? Reporting that story was more despicable than any of these things?

I’m sorry, Gingrich supporters throughout the land, but words have meaning. And for Mr. Gingrich to make the claim he did – and to win thunderous applause for it – is both amazing and somewhat dispiriting.

My guess is that Mr. Gingrich’s words were completely heartfelt. It’s not that what he said was in any sense objectively true; it’s that from his perspective, they are true. Given his absolute certitude in his own greatness – he is, after all, the man who once told a reporter that it’s people like him who “stand between us and Auschwitz” – Gingrich believes any charge against him is a dagger aimed at the heart of Western civilization.

It was quite revealing to me that Mr. Gingrich, in his answer, didn’t show any contrition or remorse. Instead, he reacted with indignant self-righteousness. So think about this: Mr. Gingrich, a candidate for the presidency, is enraged because the press interviewed his ex-wife and, in the process, has drawn attention to his own infidelity and mistreatment of his ex-wife, which no one disputes. And in all of this the injured party isn’t Marianne Gingrich but rather Newt Gingrich. The offending party isn’t the former speaker; it’s the press for daring to raise this matter.

For the record, I believe in, and have written often about, liberal bias in the news media. I also think Mr. Gingrich is a man in possession of some very impressive political talents, some of which have been on display during the last week. He ranks as one of the more significant conservative political figures in the last several decades. He’s capable of offering piercing insights. And he’s a person of almost supernatural resilience. But he’s also a man of flawed character and temperamentally unequipped to be president. Time and again he’s shown himself to be erratic and alarmingly undisciplined. And the fact that his answer last night – which I will concede worked brilliantly for him – brought a conservative audience to its feet was not one of the conservative movement’s finest hours.

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Playing it Safe is Reckless for Romney

There is some consensus around the campaign blogosphere this morning–on both the left and the right–that Mitt Romney is giving up so much ground to Newt Gingrich because Romney is in the classic “prevent defense”–the formation that football teams use when they want to prevent long scoring plays to try and run out the clock.

This is a sensible analogy, but probably too kind to Romney’s latest debate performances. Romney’s mind doesn’t seem to be on the play clock, but rather the alarm clock. These debates have been the campaign equivalent of Romney waking up to find that it’s not time for the general election yet, and hitting the snooze button. Part of this stems from the fact that Romney is usually on his game when the subject is Barack Obama, but seems to have lost interest in the reality show spectacles the debates have become.

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There is some consensus around the campaign blogosphere this morning–on both the left and the right–that Mitt Romney is giving up so much ground to Newt Gingrich because Romney is in the classic “prevent defense”–the formation that football teams use when they want to prevent long scoring plays to try and run out the clock.

This is a sensible analogy, but probably too kind to Romney’s latest debate performances. Romney’s mind doesn’t seem to be on the play clock, but rather the alarm clock. These debates have been the campaign equivalent of Romney waking up to find that it’s not time for the general election yet, and hitting the snooze button. Part of this stems from the fact that Romney is usually on his game when the subject is Barack Obama, but seems to have lost interest in the reality show spectacles the debates have become.

But it’s time for him to realize that some of the questions that have been tripping him up lately are of general-election concern, and his answers now will show up again later. Romney’s proclivity to stumble over questions at first and then prepare better answers to them in the future would make for good practice–60 years ago. But now, every moment is watched by many and recorded for those who didn’t watch. (The DNC already has an ad up this morning based on Romney’s unsteady response to a question about releasing his tax returns last night.)

Sometimes Romney is well prepared for questions. A good example from last night’s debate was when he scolded Gingrich for allotting himself partial credit for some of Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments. Romney pointed out, correctly, that Gingrich’s name appears once in Reagan’s diaries–and it is to dismiss an idea of Gingrich’s. (Reagan wrote: “Newt Gingrich has a proposal for freezing the budget at the 1983 level. It’s a tempting idea except that it would cripple our defense program. And if we make an exception on that every special interest group will be asking for the same.”)

But moments of Romney’s unpreparedness leave a mark. Are voters more concerned with what Reagan said in private about Gingrich or of the emerging reputation of Romney as a tycoon with something to hide? So which question should he prioritize? There are numerous football analogies he’s inviting, including the “prevent defense” comparison. But you could also say Romney is like the wide receiver who looks downfield before he catches the ball, only to drop it. Or the team that will play their most important game two weeks from now, so they forget about this week’s opponent.

Whatever your preferred analogy, Gingrich’s rise in the polls makes one thing clear: Romney’s strategy of “playing it safe” has become far too risky.

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Gingrich Bashes Media, Then Gets Whipped By Santorum

The last debate before the crucial South Carolina primary started off with a bang when CNN host John King asked Newt Gingrich about his second wife’s charge that he asked for an “open marriage.” The former speaker responded with a tirade against the media that earned wild applause from the audience in Charleston and may well have been the most significant sound bite from the evening. But the rest of the night didn’t go quite as well as for Gingrich, who entered the evening leading in some of the latest polls in the state.

The reason for that was this turned out to be Rick Santorum’s strongest performance in any of the debates. The former Pennsylvania senator scored points all night at the expense of both Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who spent much of the night on the defensive. That’s problematic for Romney, who might be able to salt away the nomination with a win on Saturday night. But the question for Republicans is whether Santorum’s pounding of the two men ahead of him in the polls will take away enough votes from Gingrich to let Romney squeak out a win in the state. Even more importantly, they will be left wondering whether Gingrich will be able to get away with dismissing his ex-wife’s comments as “trash” if a win in South Carolina enables him to effectively challenge Romney for the nomination.

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The last debate before the crucial South Carolina primary started off with a bang when CNN host John King asked Newt Gingrich about his second wife’s charge that he asked for an “open marriage.” The former speaker responded with a tirade against the media that earned wild applause from the audience in Charleston and may well have been the most significant sound bite from the evening. But the rest of the night didn’t go quite as well as for Gingrich, who entered the evening leading in some of the latest polls in the state.

The reason for that was this turned out to be Rick Santorum’s strongest performance in any of the debates. The former Pennsylvania senator scored points all night at the expense of both Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who spent much of the night on the defensive. That’s problematic for Romney, who might be able to salt away the nomination with a win on Saturday night. But the question for Republicans is whether Santorum’s pounding of the two men ahead of him in the polls will take away enough votes from Gingrich to let Romney squeak out a win in the state. Even more importantly, they will be left wondering whether Gingrich will be able to get away with dismissing his ex-wife’s comments as “trash” if a win in South Carolina enables him to effectively challenge Romney for the nomination.

Gingrich’s response to questions about his personal past was a classic case of misdirection in which he castigated the media for reporting the accusations and then, almost in passing, denied that Marianne Gingrich was telling the truth. He claimed his friends could disprove what she said, but because the conversation she has mentioned was private, it’s difficult to see how that could be true. But because Republican resentment of the media always runs white-hot and it can, in truth, be argued the timing of the broadcast of the interview was prejudicial, it’s unlikely it will cost him the primary. Though the indignant manner in which Gingrich sought to deflect the question worked well in the hall, it could come back to haunt the GOP if the former speaker prevails in the Republican contest. If Gingrich thinks he can put a revelation like this in the past by merely yelling at a questioner, he’s mistaken.

That exchange may well dominate coverage of the debate, but the rest of the evening could be said to belong to Santorum. Even though he was officially informed today that he won Iowa after all, Santorum knows his campaign is on life support if he finishes a distant third or even fourth in South Carolina. So he came out swinging at both Romney and Gingrich, flaying them on health care and immigration. He launched an especially devastating attack on Gingrich’s leadership qualities and character in which he lampooned his “grandiosity” and unreliability, not to mention his chutzpah in asking Santorum to withdraw after being bested by him in the first two states to hold primaries.

Characteristically, Gingrich responded by validating the charge by taking credit for the Reagan presidency, the defeat of the Soviet Union, the 1994 GOP congressional victory and anything else he could think of.  The exchange revealed Gingrich’s boundless vanity and utter lack of self-awareness and even allowed Romney one of his few good moments of the evening in which he ridiculed Gingrich’s willingness to take credit for things for which he had little responsibility.

As for Romney, though he had his moments, especially when fending off ill-advised Gingrich attacks from the left on his business career, it was another off night. He took a beating on the question of releasing his tax returns and even was heckled by the crowd at one point. He’s right that it’s a marginal issue that plays to Democratic prejudices, but he’s foolish to not just release the returns and get it over with, especially since no one suspects he has anything to hide.

The evening was also distinctive from previous debates as Ron Paul went the entire two hours without a rant about the Federal Reserve or rationalizing America’s enemies abroad. He even scored a rare point at Santorum’s expense when he pointed out the folly of opposing global trade.

If the evening was to be judged on the basis of whether Romney got the initiative back from Gingrich, it had to be judged a failure for the former Massachusetts governor. He has to hope Santorum’s good showing results in a loss of momentum for Gingrich. Though Gingrich ought to see the debate as a very mixed bag for him, he is clearly counting on the backlash against the media’s interest in his personal life to enable him to continue to avoid answering the tough questions about his behavior while he makes more “grandiose” statements about beating Obama in future debates.

As for Santorum, though he did well, he also sounded at times as if he knew the end was near, especially when he expressed gratitude for making the “final four” of the contest. The valedictory note may have been premature, but unless Santorum comes from out of nowhere on Saturday, there’s a real possibility the field may soon be winnowed down to a final three.

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Live Blog: The GOP Debate

The debate ends. Winners and losers? Santorum wins on points. Gingrich’s anti-media tantrum is the highlight. Romney has a mixed night. Paul irrelevant as always.

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Newt says vote for me because I can beat Obama in debates. Gingrich mentions Saul Alinsky in bashing Obama. Romney says Obama is creating an entitlement society. Santorum says he will provide the clearest contrast with Obama.

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Audience demands and gets a Ron Paul response on abortion. He says change the culture as well as the laws. Santorum then says Paul has only a 50% rating on right to life issues. Says it’s no better than Harry Reid’s.

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Gingrich attacks Romney on abortion. Mentions Planned Parenthood twice in the same sentence. Romney says courts imposed abortion payments. Says charge about appointing pro-abortion judges misunderstands the issue. Says nobody (that means you Gingrich) should be questioning his integrity. Santorum says he’s the only one who makes the issue a priority. No argument there. Then hammers Gingrich for pushing social issues to the back of the bus.

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Paul’s comments about moving the army from Afghanistan to the border is the first mention of foreign policy so far tonight.

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Question about illegal immigration “amnesty.” Gingrich talking his way out of his own amnesty proposal. Romney says issue isn’t hard. Build a fence and enforce the law. Implies Gingrich plan is amnesty. Santorum says Romney has waffled and Gingrich is in the same position as Obama. Another strong attack from him.

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The debate ends. Winners and losers? Santorum wins on points. Gingrich’s anti-media tantrum is the highlight. Romney has a mixed night. Paul irrelevant as always.

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Newt says vote for me because I can beat Obama in debates. Gingrich mentions Saul Alinsky in bashing Obama. Romney says Obama is creating an entitlement society. Santorum says he will provide the clearest contrast with Obama.

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Audience demands and gets a Ron Paul response on abortion. He says change the culture as well as the laws. Santorum then says Paul has only a 50% rating on right to life issues. Says it’s no better than Harry Reid’s.

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Gingrich attacks Romney on abortion. Mentions Planned Parenthood twice in the same sentence. Romney says courts imposed abortion payments. Says charge about appointing pro-abortion judges misunderstands the issue. Says nobody (that means you Gingrich) should be questioning his integrity. Santorum says he’s the only one who makes the issue a priority. No argument there. Then hammers Gingrich for pushing social issues to the back of the bus.

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Paul’s comments about moving the army from Afghanistan to the border is the first mention of foreign policy so far tonight.

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Question about illegal immigration “amnesty.” Gingrich talking his way out of his own amnesty proposal. Romney says issue isn’t hard. Build a fence and enforce the law. Implies Gingrich plan is amnesty. Santorum says Romney has waffled and Gingrich is in the same position as Obama. Another strong attack from him.

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John King’s question about what candidates would do differently during the campaign is irrelevant and pointless. Gingrich responds about himself. Romney talks about Obama. Santorum says he wouldn’t change a thing He’s just grateful to make the “final four.”

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Newt is the first to respond to SOPA issue. Humorous reference to the fact that only left-wing Hollywood is for it. Says he’s for freedom. Right response. Romney agrees. Paul also agrees. Santorum says he doesn’t like the law but emphasizes effort to combat theft of intellectual property. Not comfortable with Internet free-for-all.

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Santorum grandstands on boosting manufacturing. Paul responds by pointing out that global trade works for everyone. Good, rational moment for a candidate who is often irrational.

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Romney heckled about how many years of tax returns he will release. Says he will release all the years of returns together. Says he’s earned his own money and can talk about a free economy in a way no other Republican can.

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Romney says tax return issue is just Democrats trying to attack people who are successful.

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Paul says he doesn’t need to release his tax returns because he’d be embarrassed to compare his income to the others.

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Romney nails Gingrich on the idea that Washington helped his business. His best moment in the debate.

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Romney, who enjoyed every minute of that exchange, now responds by saying this is why we need an outsider rather than a DC veteran. Romney says Newt deserves no credit for Reagan. Says he got one mention in Reagan’s diaries. Ouch.

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Santorum accuses Gingrich of “grandiosity.” Asks where Newt gets off asking him to get out. “These are not cogent thoughts.” Says he’s the steady, dependable conservative candidate. Newt responds by being proud of being grandiose: takes responsibility for Reagan and defeat of the Soviet Union. Santorum brings up Gingrich’s chaotic leadership and says his breaking open the House Post Office scandal had as much to do with 1994 as Gingrich’s plans.

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At the first break, the buzz is still about Gingrich counter-attacking the media for reporting his ex-wife’s charges. Secondary buzz: Santorum nails Romney and Gingrich on health care. Romney sounds okay but he has yet to score any points tonight.

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Paul expresses skepticism about repeal of Obamacare. Then says we were better off without Medicare or Medicaid. That’s libertarian ideology but not an issue that any major party can defend in November.

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Romney back to drawing distinction between his plan and Obamacare. It’s a strong argument but Santorum’s point about how Obama will attack Romney is right. Strong moment for Santorum. Helps him get back in the fight.

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Gingrich knows better than attack Romney but Santorum launches an all-out Romneycare. Makes it sound gruesome. Then turns on Gingrich with just as much venom.

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Romney is doing well denouncing Obamacare. Waiting for Gingrich or Santorum to talk about Romneycare. Gingrich passes.

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The debate turns to Obamacare. But John King wants Romney to talk about those who benefit from it.

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Newt rightly calls out Paul for not wanting preferences for veterans. The GI bill was crucial. And, oh yes, tax cuts.

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Unanimity about support for veterans. No controversy here.

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Ron Paul uses question about unemployed veterans to brag about military support.

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Santorum goes populist and says he’s for capitalism for working people but not “high finance.”

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Romney goes back to Bain. Says Republicans shouldn’t attack capitalism. Nothing wrong with profit.

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Romney ignores Gingrich attack for the moment and attacks Obama’s crony capitalism. Still focused on general election.

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Newt goes on the offensive against Bain Capital again. This is a less profitable avenue of attack for him.

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Still thinking about whether Gingrich will get away with diverting attention from his wife’s charges to media bias. Probably in the short run for a GOP audience.

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Santorum carefully parses his reaction to Gingrich’s life. Romney says let’s move on. No need for them to say anything.

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Newt claims his friends can prove Marianne’s accusation is false. How could they since they weren’t there when he supposedly asked her the question.

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Newt calls his ex-wife’s interview “trash” and lectures the moderator. We’d still like to know the answer to the question.

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Newt responds to pointed question about his “open marriage” demand to Marianne by attacking the moderator and the media.

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Santorum and especially Romney make prominent mention of their families in their intros. Newt on the spot.

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Why are the rules mandating shorter responses than on Monday with one less candidate?

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Only four men on the stage. A reminder that there were seven candidates only a couple of weeks ago.

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Speculation about where Rick Perry supporters are going isn’t insignificant. If the majority of his five percent goes to Gingrich, that could be the difference.

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We’re waiting for the debate to start watching CNN. The vulnerabilities of the two leading candidates are clear: Romney has to stay away from a discussion of his personal finances. Gingrich has to stay away from a discussion of his personal life.

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Live Blogging the GOP Debate

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from South Carolina. So tune in to CNN at 8 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the remaining four GOP contenders have at it once again.

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from South Carolina. So tune in to CNN at 8 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the remaining four GOP contenders have at it once again.

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Debate Preview: Should Romney Change Tactics?

Debates have been the device that enabled Newt Gingrich to salvage his candidacy during the fall and then to revive it again earlier this week after a strong performance put him back into contention in South Carolina. But with most of the recent polls now showing Gingrich having vaulted into the lead in that state, the pressure is on Mitt Romney to do something in tonight’s debate that will reverse the momentum the former speaker of the House has created in the last few days.

Unlike his GOP rivals who have concentrated their fire on his record, Romney has focused most of his remarks in the debates on Barack Obama; the man he assumes will be his opponent in November. But with his South Carolina lead having evaporated and all eyes on the rhetorical dustup in Charleston to be broadcast on CNN tonight, Romney will be tempted to go on the offensive against Gingrich and echo some of the attacks his super PACs have used against the former speaker. However, that would be a mistake.

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Debates have been the device that enabled Newt Gingrich to salvage his candidacy during the fall and then to revive it again earlier this week after a strong performance put him back into contention in South Carolina. But with most of the recent polls now showing Gingrich having vaulted into the lead in that state, the pressure is on Mitt Romney to do something in tonight’s debate that will reverse the momentum the former speaker of the House has created in the last few days.

Unlike his GOP rivals who have concentrated their fire on his record, Romney has focused most of his remarks in the debates on Barack Obama; the man he assumes will be his opponent in November. But with his South Carolina lead having evaporated and all eyes on the rhetorical dustup in Charleston to be broadcast on CNN tonight, Romney will be tempted to go on the offensive against Gingrich and echo some of the attacks his super PACs have used against the former speaker. However, that would be a mistake.

The accumulated effect of negative advertising and the consolidation of the conservative vote behind Gingrich as Rick Santorum faltered and Rick Perry dropped out appear to have completely erased the lead Romney had amassed in the Palmetto state. That will increase the sense of urgency tonight for Romney as he needs to both avoid falling further behind and to somehow dent Gingrich’s armor. Yet a change of style would be disastrous for the former Massachusetts governor. If he acts in such a way as to lead viewers to sense he no longer believes he has the nomination in the bag, it would be the worst possible outcome for Romney.

While Romney has on the whole done a creditable job in the debates, it may be asking too much to expect him to halt what appears to be a Gingrich surge to victory in South Carolina. Although it seemed likely he could wrap up the nomination with a victory there, Romney need not despair even if Gingrich wins. Though Gingrich can expect a boost from such an outcome, Romney is unlikely to lose the huge lead he has established in Florida, the next state to hold a primary. Just as the other candidates have maintained it will be a long battle, he has to remember he still has a big advantage in most of the states that have yet to hold elections. Romney has to keep his cool and maintain the demeanor of the man who is still the most likely to be accepting the GOP nomination in Tampa later this year.

With Rick Perry no longer on the stage, the four left standing on the debate stage will have even more opportunities to have at each other. Rather than Romney going on the attack, it will be Rick Santorum (whose hopes have taken the biggest hit this week despite the belated announcement of his victory in Iowa), who will have the greatest incentive to lash out at the others. But instead of honing in on Romney’s liabilities, the former Pennsylvania senator will probably talk more about Gingrich’s problems. And no one should be surprised if Santorum, who had hoped to ride evangelical support to victory in South Carolina, doesn’t stay away from Gingrich’s personal problems, which will be highlighted later in the evening when Marianne Gingrich, the speaker’s second wife, appears on “Nightline” to skewer her former husband.

If nothing else, these circumstances should make for good television in the latest episode of what has become America’s favorite political reality show.

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The Two Faces of Newt Gingrich

I’ve certainly had critical things to say about Newt Gingrich, but he proved again Monday night that he’s in possession of some of the greatest skills in American politics. Gingrich was the dominant figure in last night’s debate, in part because of his ability to create fairly dramatic moments, including his confrontation with Fox News’s Juan Williams. The former speaker was energetic, in command of the issues, and sent a jolt of electricity through the audience. He clearly owned the evening.

The South Carolina leg of the GOP campaign in some ways represents Gingrich in a microcosm. Last night we saw Gingrich at his best. But last week we saw him at his worst, leading an assault on Bain Capital (and the free market more broadly) that was terribly damaging to his campaign. Among other things, Gingrich’s approach earned him the praise of such liberal/left-wing stalwarts as the film director Michael Moore and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

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I’ve certainly had critical things to say about Newt Gingrich, but he proved again Monday night that he’s in possession of some of the greatest skills in American politics. Gingrich was the dominant figure in last night’s debate, in part because of his ability to create fairly dramatic moments, including his confrontation with Fox News’s Juan Williams. The former speaker was energetic, in command of the issues, and sent a jolt of electricity through the audience. He clearly owned the evening.

The South Carolina leg of the GOP campaign in some ways represents Gingrich in a microcosm. Last night we saw Gingrich at his best. But last week we saw him at his worst, leading an assault on Bain Capital (and the free market more broadly) that was terribly damaging to his campaign. Among other things, Gingrich’s approach earned him the praise of such liberal/left-wing stalwarts as the film director Michael Moore and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

What makes Gingrich the most Janus-like figure in American politics today is his capacity to bring a conservative audience to its feet one moment while in the next he refers to Representative Paul Ryan’s budget as an example of “right-wing social engineering.” The former House speaker can present himself as the heir of Reagan one day while the next he attacks democratic capitalism in language so extreme not even Barack Obama would dare invoke it. Gingrich can articulate in compelling terms the philosophical case for conservatism in one setting and speak as if he’s philosophically unanchored in another. He threatens to fire any staffer who goes negative one day and accuses the GOP frontrunner of lying and looting the next. He can speak out about the civilizational importance of marriage as an institution while treating it with a good deal less care in his own life. He can quote Edmund Burke while being a devoted follower of Alvin Toffler.

There’s a pinball quality to what Newt Gingrich says and does, which makes him both a compelling figure and an erratic one. He’s a man in possession of some extraordinary gifts but whose defects in his temperament and character are at least equal to those gifts. As a conservative, he can’t help but impress you, often just before he unnerves you.

 

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Will Romney Unilaterally End the Debates?

The debates have basically become a contest over which not-Romney candidate can draw the most blood from the frontrunner. This is great for voters, who get to see Mitt Romney’s positions challenged, and great for the other candidates, who get a chance to try to knock him down a peg. But there’s not much of a benefit there for Romney, whose campaign floated the idea to Byron York that he may sit out some of the upcoming debates:

“There are too many of these,” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said after Monday night’s Fox News debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. “We have to bring some order to it. We haven’t accepted Florida…It’s kind of like a cruise that’s gone on too long.” …

More generally, Stevens suggested that in the long course of the campaign, this year’s key issues have been exhausted. “We’re down to the most obscure questions,” he said. “When more than ten debates mention Chilean models, and it’s not a fashion show, then something’s wrong.”

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The debates have basically become a contest over which not-Romney candidate can draw the most blood from the frontrunner. This is great for voters, who get to see Mitt Romney’s positions challenged, and great for the other candidates, who get a chance to try to knock him down a peg. But there’s not much of a benefit there for Romney, whose campaign floated the idea to Byron York that he may sit out some of the upcoming debates:

“There are too many of these,” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said after Monday night’s Fox News debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. “We have to bring some order to it. We haven’t accepted Florida…It’s kind of like a cruise that’s gone on too long.” …

More generally, Stevens suggested that in the long course of the campaign, this year’s key issues have been exhausted. “We’re down to the most obscure questions,” he said. “When more than ten debates mention Chilean models, and it’s not a fashion show, then something’s wrong.”

Rick Perry’s next move after this weekend’s primary could factor into this. Perry insists he’ll continue on to Florida, but he’s polling in a distant last place in South Carolina, which raises the possibility that he may not last much longer in the race. If Perry does drop out, would it even be realistic for the networks to hold a debate without Romney? That would leave just Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul on the stage — not a very interesting contest. If voters don’t tune in, it could mean an end to the primary debates and almost certain victory for Romney.

But skipping debates wouldn’t be without significant risks for Romney. It could be viewed as a snub to Florida voters, as if he was taking his support in the state for granted. And it would definitely leave him open to attack from other candidates. It really depends on what the public interest in debates is like at that point – if voters are just as tired of them as Romney is, then it might not make a difference to them what he decides to do.

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Romney Running Out the Clock as Rivals Go Down Fighting

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.

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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.

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Live Blog: The GOP Debate

The debate ends: More winners than losers.  Gingrich, Santorum and Perry all did well. Romney took punches but none did much damage. That means frontrunner leaves the stage still in a commanding position.

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Romney scores with attack on McCain-Feingold. Super PAC ads are the fruit of campaign finance “reform.”

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Romney: Gingrich’s super PAC-funded documentary about Bain is the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.

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Gingrich nails Romney again on super PAC ads. Of course, his own super PACs have been just as bad.

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Santorum: Ron Paul’s vote on gun manufacturers liability law would have wiped out 2nd amendment.

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Romney says pro-gun groups backed the gun control law he signed. Turns it around and attacks Obama as an anti-gun president. Santorum says NRA agreed with him too.

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Looks like the Santorum-Gingrich non-aggression pact is over.

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The debate ends: More winners than losers.  Gingrich, Santorum and Perry all did well. Romney took punches but none did much damage. That means frontrunner leaves the stage still in a commanding position.

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Romney scores with attack on McCain-Feingold. Super PAC ads are the fruit of campaign finance “reform.”

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Romney: Gingrich’s super PAC-funded documentary about Bain is the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.

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Gingrich nails Romney again on super PAC ads. Of course, his own super PACs have been just as bad.

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Santorum: Ron Paul’s vote on gun manufacturers liability law would have wiped out 2nd amendment.

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Romney says pro-gun groups backed the gun control law he signed. Turns it around and attacks Obama as an anti-gun president. Santorum says NRA agreed with him too.

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Looks like the Santorum-Gingrich non-aggression pact is over.

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Santorum says Romney’s and Gingrich’s plans are not bold enough. Says Gingrich’s idea about guaranteed private accounts won’t work in a down economy. Says it’s fiscal insanity.

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Gingrich puts on his historian hat and talks Chilean social security. Again, this is Newt at his best.

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Romney lays out Ryanesque proposal for Medicare and Social Security reform. Closes by saying you also repeal Obamacare.

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Perry’s probably giving his strongest debate yet. Too bad for him it comes when his campaign is on life support.

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Paulbots boo Romney for saying Americans that join al Qaeda should be treated as enemy combatants. Shows how out of touch his isolationist fans are.

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Perry brings up question of Marines urinating on Taliban and makes strong point about supporting the military and Obama admin’s failure to do so.

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Perry criticizes Turkey. But then scores with comment that moderators need a gong to deal with Paul’s comments about bin Laden killing.

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Santorum says US should isolate Syria and Assad, not Israel. Foreign policy remains one of his strong points.

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Romney says Biden is wrong about negotiating with Taliban. Don’t negotiate with anyone while they’re killing US soldiers.

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Romney chimes in with Romney and says the best thing for terrorists who kill Americans is the bullet in the head that bin Laden received.

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Gingrich calls out Paul for comparing bin Laden to a Chinese dissident. Not a rational position. About time somebody said Paul wasn’t rational. Says Andy Jackson knew what to do with the enemy: kill them! Great applause line. Paul replies that the golden rule should apply to national defense. No wonder he’s doing better with Dems than Republicans.

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Ron Paul called out for opposing killing of Osama bin Laden. He claims he was for it but opposed violation of Pakistani sovereignty. And then makes an analogy between the U.S. and Communist China. Another crazy Paul contradiction. Thinks bin Laden should have been captured with help of Pakistanis? Not a serious position.

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Gingrich called on his comments about minority kids needing to learn to work. Refuses to accept that it’s racist to say it. Another good moment for him. He says Obama is the food stamps president. Gingrich rhetoric hearkens back to GOP’s best moments in welfare reform debate of the 90s. Juan Williams attack was a break for Newt.

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Paul gets to talk about the drug war being bad. This is what his core supporters want to hear: legalize dope!

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Santorum scores again with family values argument. This is his strength.

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Romney’s position on the Dream Act is wrong and does hurt the GOP with Hispanics. But his position that illegals shouldn’t gain an advantage is hard to argue with.

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Romney says he’ll release his tax records in April. That will probably be the end of it.

***

Paul tries to argue that cutting defense will strengthen defense. Impossible argument. But his fans love the isolationism. They ignore his gaffe about the spending on our embassy in Iraq. It’s paid for by the State Dept. budget, not DOD.

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Romney gets to talk about getting government out of the economy. This is his wheelhouse and enables him to start attacking Obama which is what he wants to do.

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Gingrich talks about the GOP being for work. He’s always at his best when he’s attacking Democrats, not Republicans.

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Rick Santorum takes on sacred cow of extending unemployment insurance. Excellent point that will be demagogued by Dems.

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Juan Williams asks about Obama administration’s attempt to attack voter ID laws and frames it as an attack on voting rights. Perry will have none of it as Gov. Nikki Haley applauds in the audience. Good moment for Perry.

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So are the quotes about Huntsman’s flip-flop on Romney aimed at Romney or Huntsman? His story about his change of mind about abortion sounds good. Of course, the truth is not quite that simple.

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At the first break, Rommey taking all the punches but I doubt that being vindicated on felon voting rights will make the difference for Santorum. But he’s not going down without a fight. Gingrich sounded defensive on Bain. Perry incoherent on everything.

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Santorum making a meal out of super PAC ad. Romney stays calm. Perry then chimes in with states rights argument that gets cheers but is really beside the point.

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Santorum calls out Romney for his super PAC ad about voting rights. Romney doesn’t have a good answer and then Santorum mentions more liberal Mass. law. Good moment for Santorum.

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Ron Paul says nothing wrong with negative advertising as long as it’s true. Can’t argue with that. But Santorum answers back that Paul is quoting leftist groups that aren’t credible.

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Romney’s blames China and their unfair trade practices for failed steel company. He had to be thinking of Huntsman.

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Perry’s not afraid to dive into the Bain pool. But the contradiction between his anti-regulatory position and his attack on Romney is pretty obvious. Mentions steel that Bain invested in that failed. Does he think viewers don’t know that the decline of American steel didn’t have much to do with Romney.

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Romney’s answer: I had experience turning around tough situations. He sounds relaxed confident. Gingrich tense, tight, defensive. No mystery about who’s way ahead in the polls.

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The longer Gingrich is talking about his Michael Moore-type slams at Romney, the worse it is for him.

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First question: Gingrich gets called on leftist attack on Romney. Gingrich’s answer: unilateral disarmament isn’t the answer. True but the reason why his attacks boomeranged was because he attacked from the left while claiming to be the true conservative.

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Now the candidates will get one minute and thirty seconds for their answers. I guess that should make all the difference.

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For once the applause at the debates isn’t skewed toward Ron Paul. Looks like the other campaigns got their supporters into the hall in sufficient numbers.

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Watching FOX while waiting for the debate to begin, Karl Rove makes a good point that Newt Gingrich actually helped unify a lot of conservatives behind Mitt Romney by attacking his business record. The law of unintended consequences prevails again.

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Live Blogging the GOP Debate Tonight

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from South Carolina. So tune in to Fox News at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the remaining five GOP contenders have at it once again.

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from South Carolina. So tune in to Fox News at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the remaining five GOP contenders have at it once again.

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