Rumble in Myrtle Beach

Candidates race to slow Romney's momentum in the crucial South Carolina primary.

The Republican presidential candidates debated in South Carolina last night. Mitt Romney tried to secure his lead while the other contenders sought to chip away at it. Every Republican nominee since 1980 has won the South Carolina primary, making it widely viewed as the last chance to stop Romney’s momentum.

The debate audience seemed to favor Romney, though Newt Gingrich won the loudest applauses by far. A remarkable number of attendees supported Ron Paul, admiring his consistency, integrity and willingness to dramatically slash the budget and size of government. A few of his supporters frankly admitted that his national security views are flawed, but argued that the crisis at home is a greater threat than anything abroad. It is clear that, for better or for worse, libertarianism has become a significant force in the Republican Party.

The biggest applause of the night came when Juan Williams forcefully challenged Gingrich, accusing him of “belittling” people and asking him if he could see why some of his statements could be offensive to African-Americans. He pushed back, defending his position that schools should hire students to do work, claiming that one New York City janitor would cost the same as 30 or so students. He explained that it would make kids less likely to drop out, would teach work ethic and “money is a good thing if you are poor.” He vowed to continue to state “facts that are uncomfortable” and put forth similar ideas. The audience roared.

Mitt Romney’s most popular moment came on national security. He responded to a discussion of the raid that killed Bin Laden by saying, “They declared war on us. We go anywhere they are and kill them.” He was booed once when he said that he would have signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which is controversial because it permits the military to indefinitely detain American citizens in the U.S. on suspicion based on associating with terrorists. Santorum responded that such American citizens should have the ability to bring their case to federal judges and the audience clapped.

Rick Santorum’s strongest moment was when he connected values to prosperity. He cited a 2009 Brookings Institution study that found that if you don’t have children outside of marriage, work and graduate high school, you are much more likely to succeed. The study, he said, showed that 77% of those who meet those criteria have above-average income. On the other hand, only 2% of those in poverty don’t fall into those categories.

The statement from Ron Paul that elicited the most positive reaction was when he argued he isn’t cutting defense spending because he doesn’t believe funding overseas military deployments qualify as "defense." After mentioning the $1 billion price tag on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, he said, “You consider that defense, I consider that waste.” He won further applause when he said that the other candidates are inconsistent conservatives because they feel domestic spending is wrong but approve of overseas spending. He also was cheered when he said that he’d eliminate the income tax and the “inflation tax.”

Ron Paul, however, was also the most loudly booed. He defended his opposition to the raid that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan by saying the “more proper way” would have been to work with the Pakistanis so he was handed over like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. He compared the raid to China bombing the U.S. because of a Chinese dissident living here. Gingrich responded that the analogy is “utterly irrational.”

He also had a very weak moment on Afghanistan. He chided his opponents for equating the Taliban with Al-Qaeda, saying “you can’t mix the two” because the Taliban are only fighting to remove foreign forces from their country.

This was arguably Rick Perry’s best debate. When asked what he wanted to say while Ron Paul was talking, he said, “I was just going to say that I thought the noise you were looking for was a gong,” referring to the sound the moderators use to control the debate. His biggest line of the night was when he was asked about the U.S. soldiers who videotaped themselves urinating on dead Taliban fighters. He said that they should be punished but that the reaction was overblown. “You want to know what’s despicable? Cutting off Daniel Pearl’s head,” Perry said, referring to the beheading of a Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan in 2001.

Perry was also asked about the Islamist government of Turkey and how it has been supporting Hamas and violating women’s rights and press freedom. He said that Turkey is now ruled by “what some would call Islamic terrorists” and said that a discussion of whether it should remain in NATO is appropriate. He also said he’d end foreign aid to Turkey and all countries and force them to justify future funding.

The clashes between the candidates were relatively minor. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney attacked Newt Gingrich’s Social Security plan based on the Chilean model. Santorum said it would add to the debt and was “fiscal insanity.” Gingrich replied that he’d pay for it by consolidating 185 federal bureaucracies for low-income Americans.

Romney and Gingrich butted heads a bit over the Super PACs supporting them. Gingrich said “it would be nice if he [Romney] exercised leadership” over his former donors and staff members running attack ads and said that if he has no influence over PACs supporting him, then “it makes you wonder how much influence he’d have as president.” Romney replied that he has called on falsehoods in ads to be pulled and that it would be illegal for him to call the PACs and tell them to stop.

Ron Paul said that he couldn’t fit all of his criticisms of Santorum in his attack ad, prompting a back-and-forth. Santorum accused Paul of relying on radical left-wing groups for the claims in the ad. Santorum and Romney also argued over his record on allowing criminals to vote. Perry also criticized Romney’s time at Bain for job losses in South Carolina, which Romney attributed to unfair trade practices with China.

Overall, the debate was an entertaining show, but it is hard to see why it would result in any changes in the polls. No candidate stumbled badly enough to lose supporters and no candidate offered a new rationale for voters to join their team. The next debate is on Thursday and if nothing big happens, it could very well be the last one before Romney becomes the inevitable nominee.

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