No Holds Barred in South Carolina

Free-for-all in the last debate before the primary.

Yesterday was a huge night in the Republican presidential race. Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Newt Gingrich, whose ex-wife has given two scathing interviews. The result of the Iowa caucus changed, recognizing Rick Santorum as the winner. Gingrich is surging in the South Carolina polls and the final debate before Saturday’s primary was dynamic.

The importance of last night’s debate can be seen by looking at the polls. Gingrich’s numbers in South Carolina have climbed and it’s very hard to tell if he or Mitt Romney has the edge. The RealClearPolitics poll average has Romney with a slight lead, 32 to 31 points, but has Romney trending down and Gingrich trending up. Nate Silver’s latest poll analysis has Gingrich with a slight lead, 35 to 33 points. Silver believes Gingrich has a 62% chance of winning the primary. South Carolina has chosen the eventual Republican nominee every time since 1980.

Earlier this week, Romney got a boost when Jon Huntsman dropped out and endorsed him. Now, Gingrich has gotten a boost when Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed him. These two former candidates only had single-digit support in South Carolina but every point counts now. Interestingly, four recent polls with results favorable to Romney (IPSOS, Marist, Politico & CNN) show that even if all of Perry’s supporters go to Gingrich, Romney still wins. On the other hand, the recent polls that show Gingrich ahead (PPP, ARG, Rasmussen & Insider Advantage) indicate that, if Perry’s supporters back Gingrich, the former House speaker has a solid lead. At this time, the outcome of the primary is very uncertain and that’s why this debate was so fiery.

Political analyst Larry Sabato judged Gingrich to be the winner of the debate and gave him a grade of an A. Santorum was given an A-, Romney a B and Ron Paul got a C. Nate Silver, on the other hand, felt that Rick Santorum performed the best. His grades were an A- for Santorum, B+ for Gingrich, B- for Paul and C for Romney.

Newt Gingrich stole the show with the first question. The CNN moderator asked him about the allegations one of his ex-wives is making. He denied asking her for an open marriage and aggressively chastised the moderator, arguing that his decision to make that the first question shows that the media has a liberal bias. One can only grasp the intensity of the moment by viewing it, which can be done here.

His rivals were then asked if Gingrich’s marital history is a legitimate issue. Romney responded, “John, let’s get to the real issues. That’s all I’ve got to say.” Ron Paul responded similarly. Rick Santorum, awkwardly and with many stutters, said it is an issue that voters should look at but tried to appear non-judgmental by recognizing that “we are all fallen” and professing his Christian faith.

Mitt Romney’s most memorable moment is not favorable to him. The moderator mentioned how his father made political history by releasing a dozen years of income tax filings. When he asked Romney if he’d do the same, he nervously responded, “Maybe.” He was booed by some in the audience.

Rick Santorum was on the offensive against all. He went after Romney hard for his health care plan in Massachusetts, saying that he couldn’t debate the President on health care when his own plan inspired ObamaCare. Santorum rattled off a series of claims, such as that 50% of doctors in Massachusetts are not seeing new patients, there are long waits, and that the state has the highest health insurance premium in the country. He also went after Newt Gingrich for his past support of the individual health care mandate and said he fought for health savings accounts “while these two guys were playing footsies with the left.” Romney explained that premiums were that high before his plan was implemented and that the people of Massachusetts favor it by 3-to-1.

The biggest clash of the night was between Santorum and Gingrich. Santorum mentioned that Gingrich experienced a revolt against him during his tenure and that he is undisciplined and accused him of grandiosity. He also alleged that Gingrich was aware of a scandal and chose not to expose it because it might threaten his political ambitions. Santorum said that he doesn’t want a nominee that makes him worry every day about what he’ll say next. Santorum said if he’s the Republican nominee, he’d make Obama the issue. Gingrich defended having grandiose and big ideas. Santorum responded that Gingrich has big ideas but is unable to execute them.

There were some notable exchanges between Gingrich and Romney. Gingrich stood by his criticisms of Romney’s time at Bain Capital, to which Romney indirectly accused him of criticizing capitalism. The two also clashed over Gingrich’s ads that say that RomneyCare provided for taxpayer-funded abortions, which Santorum agreed with. Romney said that a court was responsible for making that happen.

In his sharpest attack on Gingrich, Romney accused him of taking credit for Ronald Reagan’s success. He said that in Reagan’s diary, Gingrich was only mentioned once and it was for a bad idea he proposed. Gingrich claimed that part of the reason for Romney’s success was because of his time in Congress. Romney said that Gingrich shouldn’t take credit for his success because he was only speaker of the House for four years but he was a businessman for 25.

Ron Paul’s main target was Santorum. He criticized him for supporting the Bush Administration’s prescription drug program and for voting against a Right-to-Work bill. At one point, Santorum said that he deserved a response because Paul was referring to him. Paul said that Santorum is “overly sensitive” because he “wasn’t even thinking” about him. Santorum attacked Paul’s pro-life credentials, noting that his Right-to-Life voting record is at 50%, about the same as Harry Reid. Paul argued that this was because he opposed federal anti-abortion laws in favor of state ones because they are constitutional and more effective.

Although Ron Paul criticized overseas military deployments, he carefully avoided making the mistakes he did in previous debates by condemning the raid that killed Bin Laden and asserting that there is “no evidence” that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

There are only four candidates left. Mitt Romney hopes to lock up the nomination by winning Saturday’s primary. Newt Gingrich hopes to stop him and potentially vanquish Rick Santorum with a come-from-behind victory. Rick Santorum is unlikely to win but has given no indication that he will drop out if he loses the primary. Ron Paul has made it known that, even if he knows he can’t win, he’ll stay in the race until the very end.

The importance of Saturday’s primary is hard to overstate. It will decide whether the race will end early or if Romney has a long-term fight on his hands for the nomination.

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