Commentary Magazine


Topic: South Carolina primary

South Carolina Proves Conservatives Are Far From Finished

For the past few months we’ve been hearing a lot in the mainstream media about the demise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans in general. After their triumph in 2010 the Tea Party’s influence was supposed to have peaked last summer during the debt ceiling crisis. The failure of presidential candidates who openly identified with the movement such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry was seen as evidence of their not being able to even influence the GOP. But yesterday’s big victory in the South Carolina primary by Newt Gingrich is a clear indication that conservatives are still calling the tune in the Republican Party and anyone who thinks their concerns can be ignored or swept to the side is mistaken.

Gingrich won because, unlike Mitt Romney, he was able to tap into the genuine anger that conservatives in this country feel for President Obama and his cheerleaders in the liberal media echo chamber. While Gingrich’s claim to be the true conservative in the race is highly questionable, there is no question that he was the best at articulating the same fervor that helped galvanize Tea Party sentiment and sweep the last midterm elections. If Romney hopes to keep Gingrich’s latest comeback from gaining enough momentum to deny him the GOP nomination, he is going to have to find a way to convince conservatives that he is not merely a technocrat who understands the economy but a man who understands and can articulate their core beliefs. In other words, not only is the Tea Party’s moment not in the past, it is still very much the future of the Republican Party.

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For the past few months we’ve been hearing a lot in the mainstream media about the demise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans in general. After their triumph in 2010 the Tea Party’s influence was supposed to have peaked last summer during the debt ceiling crisis. The failure of presidential candidates who openly identified with the movement such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry was seen as evidence of their not being able to even influence the GOP. But yesterday’s big victory in the South Carolina primary by Newt Gingrich is a clear indication that conservatives are still calling the tune in the Republican Party and anyone who thinks their concerns can be ignored or swept to the side is mistaken.

Gingrich won because, unlike Mitt Romney, he was able to tap into the genuine anger that conservatives in this country feel for President Obama and his cheerleaders in the liberal media echo chamber. While Gingrich’s claim to be the true conservative in the race is highly questionable, there is no question that he was the best at articulating the same fervor that helped galvanize Tea Party sentiment and sweep the last midterm elections. If Romney hopes to keep Gingrich’s latest comeback from gaining enough momentum to deny him the GOP nomination, he is going to have to find a way to convince conservatives that he is not merely a technocrat who understands the economy but a man who understands and can articulate their core beliefs. In other words, not only is the Tea Party’s moment not in the past, it is still very much the future of the Republican Party.

Needless to say, liberals are not taking this development with a good grace.

The New York Times editorial column this morning attempted to rationalize Gingrich’s win by attributing it to conservative racism. This is a liberal canard that has been repeated endlessly in the last two years without any proof to back it up. But the anger that the Times and other liberals mistake for racism is genuine. It is not, however, fueled by racism or a wish to deny minorities opportunities but a function of the frustration that many Americans feel about Obama’s reckless spending and taxing that is leading the country over the economic cliff.

Romney has a case to make to conservatives about his ideas being a better fit on the economy than those of Gingrich. But his cool demeanor and inability to create some chemistry with the electorate is a genuine obstacle to his presidential hopes. By contrast, Gingrich described himself as not a great debater but someone who can “articulate the deepest values of the American people.” It’s easy to scoff at the typical false modesty in this boast but there is something to what he’s driving at. It must be acknowledged that what happened in the last week is in large measure the product of his ability to channel conservative and Tea Party sentiment about liberal politicians and journalists.

The vast compendium of “grandiose” schemes and slogans that emanate from the former speaker are all over the ideological map. His personal flaws and abysmal leadership style make it difficult to imagine him winning the presidency. But unless Romney can figure a way to speak to the hearts as well as the minds of conservatives, he may deliver the GOP nomination to Gingrich.

In the nine days until the Florida primary and most especially the two debates in the state this week, Romney must start speaking directly to conservatives. Last night in his South Carolina concession speech, he gave us a hint of the sort of language that he might use to do that when he spoke of a campaign to defend free enterprise against the party of big government and those Republicans like Gingrich who have employed the arguments of the left to try to tear him down. We’ll need to hear a lot more of that and to hear it spoken with the sort of passion that Gingrich can so easily summon if Romney is ultimately to prevail.

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Why Romney Failed With Evangelicals

CNN is touting exit polls that said South Carolina voters who cared about a candidate’s religious beliefs overwhelmingly rejected Mitt Romney. They are speculating that this might mean that evangelicals turned down the former Massachusetts governor because of his Mormon faith. Given the polls that have backed up the idea of the prevalence of such prejudice, this isn’t a completely unreasonable conclusion.

However, it must be pointed out that such voters are also most likely to dislike Romney for other reasons. Romney’s reputation as a flip-flopper on social issues is a much bigger problem for him among conservative Christians than Mormonism. We’ve heard much less talk about Romney’s faith this year than we did four years when this appeared to be a major issue, especially in South Carolina.

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CNN is touting exit polls that said South Carolina voters who cared about a candidate’s religious beliefs overwhelmingly rejected Mitt Romney. They are speculating that this might mean that evangelicals turned down the former Massachusetts governor because of his Mormon faith. Given the polls that have backed up the idea of the prevalence of such prejudice, this isn’t a completely unreasonable conclusion.

However, it must be pointed out that such voters are also most likely to dislike Romney for other reasons. Romney’s reputation as a flip-flopper on social issues is a much bigger problem for him among conservative Christians than Mormonism. We’ve heard much less talk about Romney’s faith this year than we did four years when this appeared to be a major issue, especially in South Carolina.

What this defeat points out for Romney is his inability to generate support from conservative grass roots. That’s a much bigger issue than his religion.

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Late Deciders Look to Have Taxed Romney

A few moments ago the networks declared Newt Gingrich the winner in South Carolina. A week ago, Romney looked to have the nomination sewn up. But even if the Gingrich surge doesn’t last — and I don’t believe it will — this will turn the GOP race into a long, bruising slog.

As it turns out, one bad week may have cost Mitt Romney an easy stroll to the nomination. Reportedly, the exit polls are showing that half of South Carolinians decided whom to support in the last days before today’s primary and half of them chose Newt Gingrich. That means two debates that were judged to be successes for Gingrich and the distracting issue of his tax returns might have transformed the primary from easy Romney win to a surprising Gingrich triumph.

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A few moments ago the networks declared Newt Gingrich the winner in South Carolina. A week ago, Romney looked to have the nomination sewn up. But even if the Gingrich surge doesn’t last — and I don’t believe it will — this will turn the GOP race into a long, bruising slog.

As it turns out, one bad week may have cost Mitt Romney an easy stroll to the nomination. Reportedly, the exit polls are showing that half of South Carolinians decided whom to support in the last days before today’s primary and half of them chose Newt Gingrich. That means two debates that were judged to be successes for Gingrich and the distracting issue of his tax returns might have transformed the primary from easy Romney win to a surprising Gingrich triumph.

Clearly, Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns did more to damage him that the expensive ad campaign launched by Gingrich supporters that aimed at tarnishing the frontrunner’s business record.

Ironically, the decision by ABC to broadcast an interview with Gingrich’s second wife Marianne may have also turned the tide for the former speaker. Instead of her charges hurting him, the instinctive revulsion of conservatives at what they perceive as liberal media bias rallied them around Gingrich.

Whatever happens in the future, and Gingrich has many obstacles to overcome if he hopes to actually win the nomination, this is a big night for the former speaker.

 

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For Romney, 24 Hours Can Be a Lifetime

Mitt Romney’s bad week – which looks like it may get much worse before it’s over – just took another hit from a gloomy Gallup poll. Unlike other recent surveys, which have shown Romney dropping below Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, this one was a poll of national voters (via HotAir):

Gallup’s Editor-in-chief Frank Newport appeared on MSNBC to talk about the polling organization’s national tracking poll of the GOP primary race, which is changing rapidly in the last few days of the campaign for South Carolina. Newport said when their new data comes out at 1 pm eastern, “…we’ll see this gap closing more. Romney was up 23 points over Newt Gingrich. Now it will be down about ten points, so clearly things are collapsing.” …

“We have seen more movement, more roller coaster kind of effect this year than any other Republican primary in our history of tracking,” Newport said. “I think anything is possible. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Romney recovers. We’ll wait and see.”

Ed Morrissey notes two reasons for reading this poll with caution: it was a survey of registered voters, not likely voters, and it was also taken before the interview with Gingrich’s wife aired.

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Mitt Romney’s bad week – which looks like it may get much worse before it’s over – just took another hit from a gloomy Gallup poll. Unlike other recent surveys, which have shown Romney dropping below Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, this one was a poll of national voters (via HotAir):

Gallup’s Editor-in-chief Frank Newport appeared on MSNBC to talk about the polling organization’s national tracking poll of the GOP primary race, which is changing rapidly in the last few days of the campaign for South Carolina. Newport said when their new data comes out at 1 pm eastern, “…we’ll see this gap closing more. Romney was up 23 points over Newt Gingrich. Now it will be down about ten points, so clearly things are collapsing.” …

“We have seen more movement, more roller coaster kind of effect this year than any other Republican primary in our history of tracking,” Newport said. “I think anything is possible. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Romney recovers. We’ll wait and see.”

Ed Morrissey notes two reasons for reading this poll with caution: it was a survey of registered voters, not likely voters, and it was also taken before the interview with Gingrich’s wife aired.

But the “bombshell” allegation about Gingrich wanting an open marriage had already received heavy media attention well before the interview even aired yesterday, and the actual Nightline report didn’t add much more to the story. Gingrich was also able to deflect the controversy pretty effectively with his scathing response to John King last night. So while it may still have an impact, it’s also very likely that it won’t be enough to move the dial.

It’s amazing how a single day has completely changed the dynamic of this race. Less than a week ago, Romney was expected to coast to the nomination. Now he lost Iowa, appears to be headed for defeat in South Carolina, and is slumping nationally — all in a span of 24-hours.

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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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Can Gingrich’s Latest Surge Last?

After disappointing showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it appeared that Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign was about to hit bottom. But improbably, Gingrich has rebounded, and with a new poll showing him holding a small lead over Mitt Romney in South Carolina, it appears that he may be riding one more surge back into contention.

The latest Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for the Augusta Chronicle and The Savannah Morning News shows Gingrich holding a 32-29 percent lead over the frontrunner. That’s a reversal of the same poll’s showings published on Sunday that had Romney leading 32-21 percent. Other polls still show Romney ahead — including a Politico/Tarance poll also published yesterday that has him up by seven points. But there’s little question that Gingrich’s strong performance in Monday night’s debate and the accumulated impact of the attacks on Romney has put the former speaker in a position to put the outcome of the GOP race in doubt with a victory in South Carolina on Saturday. It may also bring him closer to the one-on-one matchup with Romney that he and other conservatives have always thought was the only way to defeat him.

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After disappointing showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it appeared that Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign was about to hit bottom. But improbably, Gingrich has rebounded, and with a new poll showing him holding a small lead over Mitt Romney in South Carolina, it appears that he may be riding one more surge back into contention.

The latest Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for the Augusta Chronicle and The Savannah Morning News shows Gingrich holding a 32-29 percent lead over the frontrunner. That’s a reversal of the same poll’s showings published on Sunday that had Romney leading 32-21 percent. Other polls still show Romney ahead — including a Politico/Tarance poll also published yesterday that has him up by seven points. But there’s little question that Gingrich’s strong performance in Monday night’s debate and the accumulated impact of the attacks on Romney has put the former speaker in a position to put the outcome of the GOP race in doubt with a victory in South Carolina on Saturday. It may also bring him closer to the one-on-one matchup with Romney that he and other conservatives have always thought was the only way to defeat him.

Gingrich’s surge is the product in no small measure of the failure of his conservative rivals. Rick Santorum has not capitalized on what turned out to be a victory for him in Iowa and finds himself now losing ground in South Carolina with both of the most recent polls showing him barely breaking into double digits. Also crucial was the collapse of Rick Perry’s campaign, which ended today with the Texas governor endorsing Gingrich.

Though Santorum is giving every indication he will not pull out after South Carolina no matter what the outcome, his seeming fade out does allow Gingrich to portray himself as the one viable conservative alternative to Romney. Since the latter’s rise to frontrunner status has been more the product of a split conservative field than any great outpouring of enthusiasm for the former Massachusetts governor, it’s fair to say a Gingrich victory in South Carolina could alter the entire dynamic of the race.

Throughout the race Gingrich has benefitted from the many televised GOP debates that have highlighted his rhetorical gifts. Though Romney hasn’t done badly, he cannot match Gingrich’s ability to rally the GOP faithful with stirring rebukes of the media or appeals to Reaganesque critiques of the welfare state. Another such triumph tonight in the last debate before South Carolinians vote could be decisive.

But like the other improbable Gingrich surge in November and December which put him briefly at the top of the Republican heap, his current bubble has the potential to burst at any moment.

The assumption that most Republicans would prefer any conservative alternative to Romney is about to be put to the test. Though the focus on Romney’s business record and tax returns this week have put him on the defensive, if Gingrich is able to climb back into contention, the public’s attention will be focused again on his record. And for a man with as much political and personal baggage as Gingrich, that is never a good thing.

Along those lines, tonight’s ABC “Nightline” interview with Gingrich’s second wife Marianne may strike many Republicans as unfairly timed, coming as it does less than 48 hours before a primary election that might decide Gingrich’s fate. But though this show will produce the usual backlash against the media that always occurs anytime a Republican is put under the microscope, it will also be a reminder of all the nasty bits in his biography that helped sink the last Gingrich surge in December.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Perry’s pullout and Santorum’s collapse puts Gingrich in position this weekend to demolish the notion that Romney’s nomination is inevitable. If the majority of conservatives jump on the Gingrich bandwagon, that should be the formula for victory in South Carolina. But the downside of raised expectations there is if Romney does hold on and emerge the victor, the deflation of this latest Gingrich bubble may soon follow.

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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 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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Debate Preview: Just Five Left Standing

With Jon Huntsman joining Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty on the sidelines of the Republican presidential race, the stage at tonight’s FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina will be a bit less crowded than the previous episodes of America’s favorite political reality show. That may allow the moderators to ask more questions but it will raise the stakes for the five men still left standing. With polls showing Mitt Romney’s lead growing in both South Carolina as well as nationally, this debate and the one on CNN on Thursday will provide his opponents with what may well be their last meaningful chances to alter the outcome of the race.

That means Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are probably going to be aiming most of their fire at the frontrunner rather than each other. But unlike the attacks on Gingrich’s records that seemed to derail his campaign in Iowa, the attempt by the former speaker and the Texas governor to blast Romney’s business record from a left-wing perspective seems to have backfired. Though there are other avenues of attack, it remains to been seen whether anything they can say in these last five days can alter the course of a primary that may anoint Romney as the inevitable nominee.

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With Jon Huntsman joining Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty on the sidelines of the Republican presidential race, the stage at tonight’s FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina will be a bit less crowded than the previous episodes of America’s favorite political reality show. That may allow the moderators to ask more questions but it will raise the stakes for the five men still left standing. With polls showing Mitt Romney’s lead growing in both South Carolina as well as nationally, this debate and the one on CNN on Thursday will provide his opponents with what may well be their last meaningful chances to alter the outcome of the race.

That means Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are probably going to be aiming most of their fire at the frontrunner rather than each other. But unlike the attacks on Gingrich’s records that seemed to derail his campaign in Iowa, the attempt by the former speaker and the Texas governor to blast Romney’s business record from a left-wing perspective seems to have backfired. Though there are other avenues of attack, it remains to been seen whether anything they can say in these last five days can alter the course of a primary that may anoint Romney as the inevitable nominee.

The other point that bears watching is whether this right-wing trio will give up on Romney and instead take shots at each other. The fact remains that Romney’s strength is in large measure the function of a divided conservative field. Had any two of the three withdrawn after Iowa or even New Hampshire that might have given the survivor an even chance to defeat Romney. But with Gingrich and Santorum scrapping over the conservative vote and Perry hanging on in last place, the odds of any one of them finishing first in South Carolina are slim.

After South Carolina, it is likely that the GOP lineup will again be pruned. While Ron Paul can be counted on to make his extremist case and largely dismiss or ignore his opponents, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry must choose whether to fire on each other or on Romney. But with the frontrunner already focused on Barack Obama and the November election, tonight’s show is one of the last chances the others have to make their cases.

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Huntsman Follows Undecideds to Romney

The big political news today coming out of South Carolina is the decision of Jon Huntsman to withdraw from the Republican presidential race and endorse Mitt Romney. In doing so, Huntsman is acknowledging the failure of his campaign to catch fire and doing the honorable thing by backing the Republican who has the best chance of winning in November. But by getting on the Romney bandwagon, he’s following the same path that has seen a considerable portion of undecided South Carolinians who are now supporting the frontrunner.

Yesterday’s Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for Newsmax revealed a major swing to Romney when compared to the survey the same group had taken just four days earlier. While the numbers of all the other candidates remained relatively stable in the last week, Romney gained nine percentage points, going from 23 to 32 percent. That stretched his lead over Newt Gingrich to a comfortable 11 points with only five days to go before the Palmetto state votes. But just as important as the raw numbers is where Romney picked up support. In the last four days, IA/MOR poll found that those expressing “no opinion” went down from 15 to 7 percent. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to figure out that most of those undecideds are now in the Romney column.

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The big political news today coming out of South Carolina is the decision of Jon Huntsman to withdraw from the Republican presidential race and endorse Mitt Romney. In doing so, Huntsman is acknowledging the failure of his campaign to catch fire and doing the honorable thing by backing the Republican who has the best chance of winning in November. But by getting on the Romney bandwagon, he’s following the same path that has seen a considerable portion of undecided South Carolinians who are now supporting the frontrunner.

Yesterday’s Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for Newsmax revealed a major swing to Romney when compared to the survey the same group had taken just four days earlier. While the numbers of all the other candidates remained relatively stable in the last week, Romney gained nine percentage points, going from 23 to 32 percent. That stretched his lead over Newt Gingrich to a comfortable 11 points with only five days to go before the Palmetto state votes. But just as important as the raw numbers is where Romney picked up support. In the last four days, IA/MOR poll found that those expressing “no opinion” went down from 15 to 7 percent. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to figure out that most of those undecideds are now in the Romney column.

We can draw two conclusions from this decisive swing to Romney.

First is the avalanche of negative advertising directed at Romney, principally by Newt Gingrich’s super PACs, not only failed to dent the former Massachusetts governor’s reputation, but had the opposite effect. The attempt to brand Romney a predatory capitalist was seen by most conservatives as absurd and South Carolinians appear to agree. We shall, no doubt, hear a lot more about Romney’s career at Bain Capital from Democrats who can be counted on to demagogue the issue relentlessly in the fall campaign. But the decision by Gingrich and Rick Perry to attack Romney from the left while claiming to be the true conservatives in the race was a major blunder.

The second point to be gleaned from this poll is that the effort by some evangelical leaders to try to settle on Rick Santorum as the conservative alternative to Romney doesn’t seem to be having much affect on South Carolina voters. The previous survey taken last Wednesday had Santorum trailing Gingrich by eight points. On Sunday, the margin remained stable with the only difference being that Ron Paul had gained a percentage point edging Santorum out of third place. Unless Santorum can do something to galvanize his campaign in the next few days, he will find himself finishing a distant third or fourth in South Carolina. That would mean the effective end of his hopes, because if Santorum can’t do well in a state where his core constituency of social conservatives are so strong, then there’s no reason to believe he’ll do better anywhere else.

Another victory in South Carolina after his Iowa and New Hampshire triumphs will give Romney an overwhelming lead in the GOP race. However, this will also provide Gingrich the opportunity he has been counting on. If Santorum can’t overtake the former speaker in South Carolina, he may pull out along with Perry who was trailing even the now withdrawn Huntsman. That would leave Gingrich as the last “non-Romney” Republican left in the race, a position all of the also-rans have been hoping would propel them to eventual victory. But the last month has been a series of unmitigated disasters for Gingrich, culminating in his Occupy Wall Street-style bashing of Romney’s business experience. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a damaged Gingrich overcoming Romney’s momentum.

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What’s Driving Down Romney’s South Carolina Poll Numbers?

Something seems to be chipping away at Romney’s poll numbers in South Carolina, but right now it’s still anybody’s guess what that is. The anti-Bain ads should be a top suspect, but several media outlets trekked to the South Carolina town that was apparently devastated by Bain’s “vulture capitalism,” and found that most people they talked to barely even remembered the company. The New York Times reports:

In a new barrage of political advertisements and speeches here, three of Mr. Romney’s opponents in South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21 have used Gaffney and Bain’s business practices in other communities across the country as a kind of battering ram to portray him as a job-destroying robber baron. …

There is a problem, though. Here in Gaffney, where deeply held Christian beliefs often matter more than jobs, few remember the Holson Burnes photo album plant, let alone the devastation its closing is alleged to have caused back in 1992. …

At The Gaffney Ledger, a newspaper established in 1894 that seems to cover everything from stolen mopeds to the Y.M.C.A. basketball league, the publisher, Cody Sossamon, looked through old microfilm to refresh his memory. He could not find one drop of ink that was spent on the factory closing.

“Nobody here really cares about that. It wasn’t a big deal,” Mr. Sossamon said. “We’re looking for a new school superintendent. That and the economy are what people really care about right now.”

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Something seems to be chipping away at Romney’s poll numbers in South Carolina, but right now it’s still anybody’s guess what that is. The anti-Bain ads should be a top suspect, but several media outlets trekked to the South Carolina town that was apparently devastated by Bain’s “vulture capitalism,” and found that most people they talked to barely even remembered the company. The New York Times reports:

In a new barrage of political advertisements and speeches here, three of Mr. Romney’s opponents in South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21 have used Gaffney and Bain’s business practices in other communities across the country as a kind of battering ram to portray him as a job-destroying robber baron. …

There is a problem, though. Here in Gaffney, where deeply held Christian beliefs often matter more than jobs, few remember the Holson Burnes photo album plant, let alone the devastation its closing is alleged to have caused back in 1992. …

At The Gaffney Ledger, a newspaper established in 1894 that seems to cover everything from stolen mopeds to the Y.M.C.A. basketball league, the publisher, Cody Sossamon, looked through old microfilm to refresh his memory. He could not find one drop of ink that was spent on the factory closing.

“Nobody here really cares about that. It wasn’t a big deal,” Mr. Sossamon said. “We’re looking for a new school superintendent. That and the economy are what people really care about right now.”

Politico visited Gaffney and found basically the same thing. Though the paper did manage to track down one disgruntled former employee at a Bain-owned plant who was willing to speak out against the company’s practices:

“As far as I’m concerned, it left a very bad taste in my mouth,” said Bob Hayler, who ran the plant shortly after it opened in 1988. “They’re somewhat cutthroat. I’ve worked for a lot of managers over my years but they were almost an angry bunch….They were yellers. They were screamers. There were just huge demands.”

And yet…apparently not a bad enough taste to convince the guy to vote against Romney:

Now retired , Hayler says he’s “more of an independent” than a Republican, but could still see himself voting for Romney, the alleged “vulture” capitalist.

“I don’t know whether I’d vote for the man or not, but in a primary, I probably would, because he’s not as far to the right as the rest of them,” Hayler said.

The thing is, if Bain isn’t what’s driving down Romney’s poll numbers, then what is? It’s certainly possible that South Carolina voters who aren’t from Gaffney might still be turned off by the ads. Then again, the angry reception Gingrich’s Bain attacks received at Huckabee’s forum seem to suggest they’re not playing particularly well with South Carolina voters in general.

Of course, Romney’s also been under fire for his flip-flops on abortion – an issue that will obviously resonate in the socially-conservative state.

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Too Late for Evangelicals to Save Santorum?

Rick Santorum is hoping the endorsement of a major evangelical group will help put him over the top next weekend in the crucial South Carolina primary.  On the third ballot of voting, the leaders of the Family Research Council endorsed Santorum in a vote in which he bested Newt Gingrich by an 85 to 29 vote. Conservative Christians are hoping their backing will send a signal to South Carolinians that those seeking an alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney should choose Santorum. But with the polls in the state still showing the former Pennsylvania senator lagging behind Gingrich and with both trailing Romney, it’s far from clear this will be enough to enable him to duplicate his near-win in Iowa.

The problem for Santorum and his evangelical fans is that Gingrich’s well-financed effort in South Carolina has put him within range of beating Romney himself. The three most recent polls showed Gingrich trailing Romney by two to seven percentage points and Santorum in third some 9 to 15 points out of first. This replicates the same dynamic that has thrust the relatively moderate Romney into a commanding position in the GOP presidential race. So long as conservatives are splitting their votes between Gingrich and Santorum with Rick Perry far behind them with five or six percent of the vote, Romney may well cruise to another victory in a multi-candidate battle.

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Rick Santorum is hoping the endorsement of a major evangelical group will help put him over the top next weekend in the crucial South Carolina primary.  On the third ballot of voting, the leaders of the Family Research Council endorsed Santorum in a vote in which he bested Newt Gingrich by an 85 to 29 vote. Conservative Christians are hoping their backing will send a signal to South Carolinians that those seeking an alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney should choose Santorum. But with the polls in the state still showing the former Pennsylvania senator lagging behind Gingrich and with both trailing Romney, it’s far from clear this will be enough to enable him to duplicate his near-win in Iowa.

The problem for Santorum and his evangelical fans is that Gingrich’s well-financed effort in South Carolina has put him within range of beating Romney himself. The three most recent polls showed Gingrich trailing Romney by two to seven percentage points and Santorum in third some 9 to 15 points out of first. This replicates the same dynamic that has thrust the relatively moderate Romney into a commanding position in the GOP presidential race. So long as conservatives are splitting their votes between Gingrich and Santorum with Rick Perry far behind them with five or six percent of the vote, Romney may well cruise to another victory in a multi-candidate battle.

Had one or two of this conservative trio dropped out after Santorum ran ahead of them in Iowa, that probably would have set him up for a possible win in South Carolina, another state where evangelicals could determine the outcome. But with Gingrich getting a major infusion of cash from big donors in the last two weeks and Perry determined to stick in the race no matter how poor his prospects, it’s difficult to see how Santorum can win. Since a Santorum surge in the last few days in South Carolina will probably come at the expense of Gingrich that may just make it all the more certain Romney comes in first again.

Indeed, the only scenario that could give Santorum a win in South Carolina would involve a collapse by Gingrich. Given the negative reception the former speaker’s attacks on Romney’s business career have received, that’s not out of the question. Santorum’s refusal to engage in Bain-bashing has enhanced his reputation for seriousness while his refusal to pull his punches on issues like abortion or gay marriage have endeared him to evangelicals. But given the major resources Gingrich has put into the state and his current position within striking distance of Romney, it’s going to be tough for Santorum to vault over him as he did in Iowa.

It could be that both Santorum and Gingrich are hoping the third place finisher in South Carolina will drop out after next week along with Perry, leaving just one conservative in the race after that. With 47 states left to vote that would theoretically make it possible for the last “non-Romney” left standing to overtake the frontrunner. But with Romney holding a big lead in Florida, which will be the next primary and with just as good prospects in the states that vote after that, a sweep of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will solidify the impression that his nomination is inevitable.

With both Gingrich and Santorum hoping to score in the two debates to be held in South Carolina this week, there may yet be enough time for one or the other to emerge as the leading conservative in the race. But barring a collapse by either, it’s difficult to see how their intense competition for conservatives will do anything but aid Romney.

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They Didn’t Do Perry Any Favors

It appears that CNN is waving its rules about qualifications to allow Rick Perry to take part in next Thursday’s debate in South Carolina. The network had said candidates would have had to place in the top four in either Iowa or New Hampshire and then register at least 7 percent in either national or South Carolina polls conducted in January. After flopping in Iowa and not even competing in New Hampshire, Perry doesn’t meet any of those criteria.

So in order to squeeze Perry into their debate, CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist decided to average three polls, two of which had Perry below the 7 percent mark. Exactly why the network felt compelled to do him a favor is not clear, but whatever its motivation, Perry will get one last chance to make his case to South Carolinians two days before the primary that will probably seal his fate as a presidential candidate. But given the fact that Perry’s decline is directly related to his debate performances, one wonders why, other than the humiliation of being excluded, he would care about getting into the CNN debate.

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It appears that CNN is waving its rules about qualifications to allow Rick Perry to take part in next Thursday’s debate in South Carolina. The network had said candidates would have had to place in the top four in either Iowa or New Hampshire and then register at least 7 percent in either national or South Carolina polls conducted in January. After flopping in Iowa and not even competing in New Hampshire, Perry doesn’t meet any of those criteria.

So in order to squeeze Perry into their debate, CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist decided to average three polls, two of which had Perry below the 7 percent mark. Exactly why the network felt compelled to do him a favor is not clear, but whatever its motivation, Perry will get one last chance to make his case to South Carolinians two days before the primary that will probably seal his fate as a presidential candidate. But given the fact that Perry’s decline is directly related to his debate performances, one wonders why, other than the humiliation of being excluded, he would care about getting into the CNN debate.

This does raise a great “what if” about a campaign that must be considered the most spectacular failure of this election cycle.

What if the GOP contest had not been dominated by a series of debates that became America’s favorite political reality TV series? What if the debates hadn’t started until a month or so before Iowa and then only  two or three? Before the debates, he seemed a sure-fire frontrunner, garnering the support of various conservative constituencies. There’s no way of answering such counter-factual queries with any degree of certainty, but there’s little doubt the repeated exposure of Perry under the television lights destroyed his hopes. His “oops” moment and other gaffes gave the country the impression he was something of a dolt. That may have been a little unfair but, looking back, his avoidance of debates during his races in Texas should have told those of us who took his frontrunner reputation at face value something about his ability to survive the presidential gauntlet.

Breaking the rules to get him into the last dance before South Carolina is a courtesy that is perhaps due to a sitting governor of Texas though it is bound to infuriate Buddy Roemer, who has been kept out of the debates because of his own inability to meet their criteria. But perhaps the best favor anyone could have done Rick Perry was to exclude him from all of the debates.

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The E.J. Dionne Vote in South Carolina

The liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. ends his column this way:

Which leads to this observation from Gingrich: “I think there’s a real difference,” he said, “between people who believed in the free market and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment.” Yes, there are different kinds of capitalism.

Romney’s victory speech suggested that he hopes that the campaign will be about whether President Obama wants to turn the United States into Europe. A more relevant discussion would be over what American capitalism is — and should be. Thanks to Gingrich and Perry, this debate is now unavoidable.

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The liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. ends his column this way:

Which leads to this observation from Gingrich: “I think there’s a real difference,” he said, “between people who believed in the free market and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment.” Yes, there are different kinds of capitalism.

Romney’s victory speech suggested that he hopes that the campaign will be about whether President Obama wants to turn the United States into Europe. A more relevant discussion would be over what American capitalism is — and should be. Thanks to Gingrich and Perry, this debate is now unavoidable.

So it appears as if Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have done a masterful job of securing what most political strategists consider to be the key demographic in South Carolina’s Republican Party: E.J. Dionne voters.

When Dionne, who is about as reliable a liberal and as passionate a supporter of Barack Obama as you’ll find, is praising Republican politicians for their comments on capitalism, it tells you almost everything you need to know.

Well done, gentlemen. Well done.

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Has Gingrich Eclipsed Santorum?

More than a week after Rick Santorum appeared to be emerging as the leading conservative in the Republican presidential race, a new poll in South Carolina shows that the former Pennsylvania senator’s Iowa momentum has more or less collapsed. The latest survey of that state’s voters shows Santorum falling far behind Newt Gingrich in the race for second place. The poll also seems to indicate that the massive infusion of money into Gingrich’s campaign by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson may have helped turn South Carolina into a two-man race between the former speaker and frontrunner Mitt Romney. The Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for the Augusta Chronicle and the Savannah Morning News released Wednesday shows Romney in the lead in South Carolina with 23 percent but Gingrich close behind him in second with 21 percent. Santorum is not only a distant third with 13.5 percent but is holding onto that spot by only two-tenths of a percentage point over Ron Paul.

Gingrich’s mini-surge in the Palmetto state will probably be attributed to the vicious attacks his campaign has launched on Romney’s business record. It is no small irony that this assault, framed in a manner usually associated with the left’s distaste for free enterprise, may be allowing Gingrich to claim the mantle as the conservative alternative to the supposedly more moderate Romney. Meanwhile, Santorum, who had hoped after Iowa to emerge as the choice of the right, seems to be dropping back in the pack.

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More than a week after Rick Santorum appeared to be emerging as the leading conservative in the Republican presidential race, a new poll in South Carolina shows that the former Pennsylvania senator’s Iowa momentum has more or less collapsed. The latest survey of that state’s voters shows Santorum falling far behind Newt Gingrich in the race for second place. The poll also seems to indicate that the massive infusion of money into Gingrich’s campaign by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson may have helped turn South Carolina into a two-man race between the former speaker and frontrunner Mitt Romney. The Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll conducted for the Augusta Chronicle and the Savannah Morning News released Wednesday shows Romney in the lead in South Carolina with 23 percent but Gingrich close behind him in second with 21 percent. Santorum is not only a distant third with 13.5 percent but is holding onto that spot by only two-tenths of a percentage point over Ron Paul.

Gingrich’s mini-surge in the Palmetto state will probably be attributed to the vicious attacks his campaign has launched on Romney’s business record. It is no small irony that this assault, framed in a manner usually associated with the left’s distaste for free enterprise, may be allowing Gingrich to claim the mantle as the conservative alternative to the supposedly more moderate Romney. Meanwhile, Santorum, who had hoped after Iowa to emerge as the choice of the right, seems to be dropping back in the pack.

With nine days to go until the crucial South Carolina primary, the race there is still very much in flux. Had conservatives been able to unite around one candidate, there’s little doubt that person would have an edge there over Romney. But with Rick Perry still lingering in the race, albeit in last place with just five percent where he trails even Jon Huntsman, Gingrich and Santorum are locked in a tough battle for social conservatives and Tea Partiers. There was some thought after Gingrich’s disastrous performance in Iowa that he would continue to fade. But Santorum has failed to capitalize on his momentum.

Adelson’s support has enabled a pro-Gingrich super PAC to broadcast a documentary portraying Romney as a rapacious corporate raider who put innocent people out of work. That the man claiming to be the “true conservative” in the race would allow this sort of leftist agitprop to be used in his name has led many conservatives to attack Gingrich’s judgment. But though it may wind up hurting him more than it does Romney, the tactic may have served to help separate Gingrich from Santorum just at the moment when it seemed the latter would emerge as the only Republican who could possibly stop the frontrunner. To his credit, Santorum has refused to engage in the sort of attacks on Romney that Gingrich and Perry have used. But his scruples may have allowed Gingrich to eclipse him at a crucial moment for his candidacy. As I wrote yesterday, Gingrich has conceded that the attacks on Romney are wrong, but with his super PAC’s ads still slotted to run, he may hope to continue to reap the advantages of the slurs on his competitor while disassociating himself from them.

Other polls have shown Romney to be in a stronger position in South Carolina than this one survey indicates. But the basic equation of the race remains the same. So long as those opposed to Romney are splitting their votes between Gingrich, Santorum and Perry, the frontrunner is likely to squeak out yet another victory as he did in Iowa. Though Adelson’s cash may allow Gingrich to stay in the race, unless Santorum finds a way to catch up with the former speaker, South Carolina will be his last stand.

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