The last time a crop of presidential candidates debated in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was exactly four years ago on Martin Luther King Day 2008. Back then, it was the Democrats who held the stage in front of a rowdy crowd that was rooting for fireworks — and got so many that it seemed the building was in danger of being burned down. This was the debate in which Hillary Clinton attacked Barack Obama over his association with the "slum landlord" Tony Rezko, in which Obama attacked Clinton for leaning too hard on her husband ("I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," he moaned), and oh so much more. All along, the audience hooted and hollered as if they were at a prize fight. When it was over, the debate was immediately christened "the brawl on the beach" — an instant classic in the annals of South Carolina's free-for-all style of presidential politicking.
Last night's Republican debate at Myrtle Beach wasn't quite that wild, but the mirror-image similarities to last cycle's melee were striking nonetheless. The crowd was rambunctious, bordering on rabid — cheering, jeering, at one point even leaping to its feet to deliver a standing ovation. ("Never seen it before in a debate," observed pollster Frank Luntz afterwards.) The candidates were juiced. There was sniping, scratching, clawing, pummeling — virtually all of it directed at Mitt Romney. There was also, however, one big difference between the brawl on the beach and this year's showdown in the sand: Unlike in 2008, when Clinton and Obama bludgeoned each other to a draw, last night there was a clear and unequivocal winner.
His name, of course, was Newton Leroy, and hey, you've got to hand it to him, the dude was in rare form. After starting slowly, Gingrich deployed all of his rhetorical assets — high dudgeon, historical pedantry twinned with cathartic exclamation, gross oversimplification followed by wild exaggeration — to inflame the Republican base's most visceral resentments and yearnings. He tripled (or maybe quadrupled) down on his portrayal of Barack Obama as "the best food stamp president in American history," a man who doesn't think that "work is good." He mau-maued Juan Williams despicably but highly effectively in response to a series of tough questions on race (eliciting the above-referenced standing O). Discussing the merits of negotiating with the Taliban, he blood-lustily invoked a favorite son of the Palmetto State: “Andrew Jackson had a good idea what to do with our enemies: Kill them.” And he skewered Romney with stiletto-sharp sarcasm over an ad impugning Gingrich's pro-life bona fides: "This is typical of what both Senator Santorum and I have complained about with Governor Romney’s Super PAC, over which he apparently has no influence — which makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president.”
Romney turned in by far his wobbliest debate performance of the campaign thus far. He escaped unscathed from the interrogation on his record at Bain, but then walked into a trap set by Santorum on felons' voting rights. Romney's claim that he abhors everything about Super-PACs was a howler that even a demented fact-checker would assign a thousand Pinocchios. His answer when asked about the frequency with which he hunts — "I'm not going to describe all of my great exploits, but I went, I went moose hunting, actually, not moose hunting, I'm sorry, elk hunting with friends in Montana, been pheasant hunting. I'm not the great hunter that some on this stage, probably Rick Perry, my guess is, you're a serious hunter, I'm not a serious hunter" — was an unintended comic gem.
And then there was the extraordinary, mile-high stack of waffles that Romney piled up when pressed to release his tax returns: "I looked at what has been done in campaigns in the past, with Senator McCain and President George W. Bush and others. They've tended to release tax records in April, or tax season. I hadn't planned on releasing tax records, because the law requires us to release all of our assets, all the things we own. That I've already released; it's a pretty full disclosure. But ... if that's been the tradition, then I'm not opposed to doing that. Time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I'm going to get asked to do that around the April time period, and I'll keep that open ... What's happened in history is, people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that's probably what I'd do."
Yet in terms of the dynamics of the race at this moment, Romney's weakness matters less than Gingrich's strength — and in particular, the latter's potency relative to the other not-Romneys. The single salient question between now and Saturday, when the votes are cast in South Carolina, is whether conservatives will rally around one of the alternatives to a sufficient degree to defeat the front-runner there. With neither Ron Paul nor Rick Perry a plausible victor on January 21 (or beyond), that leaves Gingrich and Santorum as the conceivable repositories of support from the ABM (Anyone But Romney) forces.
Will Gingrich get enough lift out of the debate last night to separate himself from Santorum? The Pennsylvania senator's performance was adequate, but only just. And he has done precious little to capitalize on the endorsement of a group of Christian conservative leaders who met last weekend in Texas and voted to back him.
Santorum, however, has just gone up on the air with a strong negative ad linking Romney to Obama. And he appears to have both the bit between his teeth and his dander up when it comes to Gingrich. In the spin room after the debate, Santorum was asked about a barb from Newt regarding Santorum's epic eighteen-point loss of his Senate seat in 2006 and what it says about his viability in a general election. “If the issue is electability, we've had two races [in Iowa and New Hampshire],” Santorum replied. “Who’s more electable? The guy that finished first [in Iowa] or the guy that finished way behind in Iowa [and] behind me in New Hampshire?”
To buttress his case, Santorum might have also pointed to a new Fox News poll that shows Gingrich with a 39 percent unfavorable rating — among registered Republicans! As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza observes, "Having nearly four in ten Republicans against you is extremely rare for a Republican politician, no less one who is trying to win his party’s nomination." And it may speak to a ceiling on Gingrich's support that will make it difficult for him to muster enough votes to beat Romney in South Carolina — or anywhere else, for that matter.
The truth is, neither Gingrich nor Santorum has run an even modestly competent campaign so far in the Palmetto State. Both have been aimless, themeless, and undisciplined, failing to drive a consistent message or tell their stories in a maximally effective way. If either had done so, Romney would almost certainly be in more jeopardy here than he appears to be. With just four days remaining on the clock, the last clear shot at Romney that Gingrich and Santorum have is the second and final South Carolina debate on Thursday night in Charleston. Given what's at stake — any faint hope of stopping Romney's march to the nomination — and what took place in Myrtle Beach last night, I have a feeling it will be a doozy.