Newt Gingrich’s indignant response to the first question of Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate in South Carolina sucked every cubic centimeter of oxygen from the auditorium. When asked to respond to his second wife’s allegation in an ABC News interview that he had once asked her for an open marriage, Gingrich became incensed, chastising the media for its “destructive” and “vicious” interest in personal issues. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” he said to debate moderator John King of CNN. “[It's] as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
As the crowd roared its approval, Gingrich returned to form, reviving his media criticism act from the fall debates before denying the charge outright. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he said. “This story is false.”
The audience’s raucous response was enough to inspire imitation. Though each of the other three candidates had pointedly mentioned their lengthy marriages in the opening minutes of the debate, they all paid lip service to Gingrich’s desire to move on. Romney, who had just introduced himself by way of noting his 42-year union, said, “Let’s get onto the real issues, that’s all I have to say.”
The real issue for Romney, as usual, was criticizing President Obama, which he proceeded to do with gusto, settling into well-worn stump speech one-liners. ”We have to replace Barack Obama to get America working again,” he said. But the sheer ferocity of Gingrich’s opening salvo seemed to linger in the debate hall, and when Romney was asked to respond to Newt’s criticism of his tenure at Bain Capital, the former governor took things further than he ever had before.
After delivering his line about how “strange” it was to hear attacks on capitalism from fellow Republicans, Romney turned to Obama. “We’re going to stuff it down his throat that it is capitalism and freedom that make [America] strong,” he said. “My view is capitalism works.” Not to be outdone, Rick Santorum called Obama’s proposed defense cuts “disgusting.” Gingrich even got in a cheap teleprompter joke.
With less than 48 hours until the primary and polls showing Gingrich closing in on Romney, the candidates didn’t wait long to turn the invective on each other.
Santorum, suddenly hyper-aware that Gingrich is rallying conservatives to his banner in South Carolina, attacked his rival hard. First he struck on health care, explaining how he was drafting legislation for health savings accounts “while these guys were playing footsie with the left.” He knocked Newt for his “grandiosity”–which Newt quickly confirmed by remarking that “I think grandiose thoughts”– and predilection for controversy. “Something’s going to pop,” he said, “and we can’t afford to have that in a nominee.” Then on his tenure in the House: “No discipline…no ability to pull things together,” and a blow on the congressional check-kiting scandal of the early 1990s.
Romney joined in at one point to slap down Gingrich’s talking points on his role in job creation during the ’80s–”You’re mentioned once in Ronald Reagan’s diary,” he said –but for the most part, the front-runner had a rough night, appearing defensive and committing more unforced errors than usual. In making his well-rehearsed point about private sector knowhow trumping government experience, Romney gave his rivals yet another sound bite for their ad reels, calling for voters to elect someone who’s “lived in the real streets of America,” a situation with which Romney is almost certainly unfamiliar.
As in Monday night’s debate, when Romney was asked when he’d release his tax returns, he once again seemed caught off guard, allowing only that he’d “probably” release his 2011 filings in April “and probably for others years as well.” His reason was as honest as it was clumsy — that Democrats would use the returns to attack him, a rationale his rivals swiftly demolished. And when asked if he’d follow his father’s example of releasing more than a decade’s worth of documents during his own 1968 presidential bid, he said “maybe,” drawing boos from the audience. Romney was so off his game that when defending the health insurance reforms he instituted in Massachusetts, he even referred to it by its eponymous pejorative, RomneyCare.
Luckily for Romney, Santorum’s attacks on Gingrich were biting and effective, increasing the chance that South Carolina conservatives will splinter between the two men in Saturday’s primary, and thus boosting Romney’s chances of staying on top. But the unforgettable moment of the night belonged to Gingrich’s media diatribe, and voters – who, judging by the reaction of the audience, will eat it up — would be forgiven if they remember little else. (Paul, for one, was rarely called on.)
In their closing arguments, Romney delivered his stump speech about restoring America as “the hope of the earth.” Santorum laid out the case that he offered the “clear contrast” with Obama, a clear plea to conservatives. But Gingrich’s conclusion rang the truest on this night. “I want to thank CNN,” he said. He might just be thanking them again on Saturday.