Tonight’s South Carolina presidential debate was a pretty rowdy affair. The crackle in the air was provided by: 1) Fox and Wall Street Journal moderators (Bret Baier, Kelly Evans, Juan Williams, and Gerald Seib) who asked intelligent, tough questions, 2) candidates who sought to ignore those questions and strafe their opponents in the process, and, 3) a boisterous crowd that seems to have time-traveled to Myrtle Beach straight from the infamous 2004 Clemson v. South Carolina football brawl (which, in order to provide CHE readers with substantive analytical resources, I have posted above).
The storylines as I see them:
Gingrich Strikes Back: Aside from an assault on Mitt Romney’s Bain record which the latter parried well, the former Speaker was beastin’ (as the football players like to say). Gingrich brought down the house by quipping that 99 weeks of unemployment benefits was “an Associates Degree.”
For some reason he re-doubled down on his remark about “light janitorial duties” for 13-year olds–I just don’t see that serving him well in the general election (but it killed in South Carolina). And for some reason the crowd gave him a standing ovation (on Martin Luther King Day) as he crossed swords with Juan Williams, who was grilling him about recent racially insensitive remarks.
The fellow from Georgia delighted the north folk and he seemed to have a far better sense of who his audience was than any of his colleagues (i.e., the kind of audience that loved the idea that Andrew Jackson’s preferred approach to America’s international enemies was to “kill them”).
Mitt Should Have Attacked: I praised the defensive, counter-attacking debate tactics of Mitt Romney back in New Hampshire. But tonight the former governor was in a near perpetual state of repulsing assaults. He was pummeled about Bain, his abortion record, his support for gun rights, his flipfloppery, Super Pacs, job creation in Massachusetts (47th in the nation according to Gingrich), and so forth.
Through it all he wore his Frontrunner’s Face, somehow cracking a smile as a moderator invoked Jon Huntsman’s line about Mitt being “a perfectly lubricated weather vane on the issues of the day.” Romney limited his offensive forays to attacks on Barack Obama and here he erred, perhaps catastrophically.
SUPER PACS: Roughly a fifth of this debate was about negative campaigning and the role of Super Pacs. Romney reiterated that according to federal law he is not allowed to have any communication with the Super Pacs (which have served him well, I would add) and hence couldn’t call them off even he wanted to (which he probably doesn’t, I would also add).
Out of sheer curiosity I ask this states rights’ slate of Republicans: What would happen if it was discovered that there was coordination between a candidate and a Super Pac? Who would be in charge of investigating and punishing that transgression? Would that be the federal government’s job? Just asking.
Rick Perry’s Best Performance Yet: The governor of Texas may be polling in last place, but he did a good job tonight. And he seems to be having fun. His strategy is clear: he will perform the challenging task of being the most radical Culture Warrior on the stage.
To that end: The federal government, he charged, has declared war on Texas, South Carolina, and religion. Turkey, he opined, is “ruled by Islamic terrorists” and in a Perry administration congresspersons will have part-time jobs (though wouldn’t that make life awfully easy for the Perry administration?).
Yet insofar as social conservatives gave their endorsement to Santorum–who did not kill tonight–this past week, it will be difficult for Perry to gain any traction.
Scrums: A few entertaining brawls broke out. Santorum accused Ron Paul of wanting to wipe out the Second Amendment. Rick Perry suggested that Paul’s views on the Taliban should have had him “gonged” off the stage (A Gong Show reference delivered with a pretty funny grin by Perry!). Gingrich wondered how Romney would have any influence as president if he couldn’t influence his own Super Pacs. Paul was booed lustily by the crowd for his isolationist views.