Santorum, Gingrich With Strong Debate Showings Ahead of S.C. Primary

Kevin Glass

1/19/2012 10:51:00 PM - Kevin Glass
In the last debate before Saturday's South Carolina primary, the four remaining GOP candidates squared off in a CNN-hosted debate. The discussion was wide-ranging, hitting on trade, abortion, health care, immigration, SOPA and more. With the field whittled down, there got to be some legitimate back-and-forth between the candidates.

Newt Gingrich might have had the most crowd-pleasing moment of the night when, right off the bat, moderator John King asked about the most recent marital indiscretions that have hit the candidate in the last twenty-four hours. Gingrich shot back with an answer full of vitriol that has to be seen to be appreciated.

The other revealing exchange of the night came when Santorum took his shots at Gingrich and, with far more hostility, Mitt Romney. In perhaps the most thorough and sustained attack on Romney's health care vulnerability, Santorum said of Romneycare "it is not a free-market health care system. It is not bottom-up. It is prescriptive in government, it was the basis for Obamacare, and you do not draw a distinction that’s going to be effective for us just because it was the state level not the federal level." Gingrich did not escape Santorum's attack, as he called out the Speaker for supporting an individual mandate. Santorum said Gingrich and Romney had been "playing footsie with the Left," and that it took Gingrich 12 years to back off his support of an individual mandate.

Romney had another Romney-like performance. He stumbled on a few questions, attempted to minimize the damages, didn't have many stand-up-and-applause lines and agreed with his rivals when necessary.

Ron Paul had another Ron Paul-like performance. He was good on the issues we expect him to be good on, bad on the issues that we expect him to be bad on, and chuckled to himself about the lack of attention he was given at times by the moderator.

Debate grades:

Rick Santorum: B+ - Santorum definitely had the best defenses, the best exchanges, and some of the best stances of the night. His poise and preparation in sparring with the other candidates might have won him some fans, and a lot of people had to be pleased with how he went after Mitt on Romneycare with more fervor than has been seen so far in the campaign cycle.

Santorum's end-of-the-night pitch for himself as a bedrock conservative with a good electoral track record against Democrats had to resonate with Republicans concerned with both authentic conservatism and electability for a general election candidate. We'll have to see if Santorum's performance was enough to build sufficient momentum to counter the recent Gingrich surge and earn him a top position in the Palmetto State.

Newt Gingrich: B- - Gingrich wins a lot of points for his answer on his personal life. Seriously. Go watch the above video again. It was a bit of a softball, but the fury with which Gingrich responded successfully prevented any follow-ups and diffused the issue for the rest of the night.

Newt had a few unsatisfying answers on other questions - for example, he attempted to take credit for Romney's business success with his leadership in Washington. Santorum landed a decent attack on his "grandiosity." And, as I said before, Santorum's volleys about his support for an individual mandate were effective. All in all, a good night for Newt. He might have more appropriately earned an "incomplete" grade, because the full interview with his ex-wife, and all the potential bombshell allegations, will air later tonight. We'll see what kind of traction that gets.

Ron Paul: C+ - Paul got the usual applause lines that he gets for his economic policy views and the usual silence on his "bring the troops home" foreign policy stance. He performed slightly better than in most debates, though he probably won't get much of a bump in South Carolina.

Mitt Romney: C- - Mitt is half in frontrunner mode at this point, hitting Obama hard, making half-hearted defenses at his opponents' attacks, stumbling through a few tough answers, and just trying to make it through unscathed.

It was particularly shocking that Romney fumbled, hard, through the question of releasing his tax return. He knew the question was coming and didn't have an easy answer. Even Ron Paul, who also has not released his tax returns and says he has no plans to, was able to come up with something coherent. This debate was about treading water for Romney, and he might have sunk a little bit.

If the Marianne Gingrich interview gets traction tomorrow and dominates the news cycle, Newt's solid debate performance will have been for nothing. Santorum came out of this looking pretty good, and he'll have to capitalize on any Gingrich stumbles in order to have a South Carolina showing strong enough to keep his campaign going.