Republican South Carolina Debate Recap & Liveblog

This is a recap of the Monday night debate. For the Thursday night debate, click here.

It’s the first debate in the last state that matters (if Romney wins it). Who won? Who lost? What happens next?

I’m here at an event hosted by an amazing group, The New American Tavern, who’re designed to set up ongoing watch-parties and multi-partisan dialogue as this election proceeds. They’ll be holding different events in different actual bars as the election goes on–we’re down at The Pourhouse at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City now. Although we had a little trouble getting the WiFi up, I managed to get up and running a little ways into the proceedings. Below, in order, is the recap, candidate rankings, and now-concluded liveblog.

RECAP

It’ s funny now to go back and read a few of the prior recaps we’ve run for these interminable debates. Just like with TV shows, they’re caught up fundamentally in the episode itself, sort of adrift in time, less a conventional wisdom than a spur-of-the-moment snapshot.

Watching this particular debate in a vacuum, you might’ve concluded that a well-dressed business-like former governor was fighting a hard campaign with a hard-nosed, sharply-attacking former senator and a haggard-looking former Speaker of the House. In reality, of course, Mitt Romney is up by around ten points in South Carolina, and given his organization’s strength, the battering he took from Rick Santorum (directly) and Newt Gingrich (more indirectly) isn’t likely to matter.

But for tonight, at least, Romney gave a prime example to his detractors on all sides of the aisle as to why he is not the strong general election candidate he needs to pretend he is in order to make it through this next week and into the real contest with Obama. Will it matter? I doubt it. Did it make for better television than usual? Yes.

In that vein, keep in mind that I still think Romney has this sewn up, unless the debate on Thursday blows him wide open. These rankings are for this debate, time-out-of-time, not for the ultimate winners of South Carolina.

CANDIDATE RANKINGS

1. Gingrich. Face it. Newt Gingrich looks and sounds exhausted. His poor campaign strategies, like campaigning at a historically-black church or showing up late or having his 90s-era “telephone town halls” plagued by problems, are exactly why most rank-and-file Republicans are going to vote against him. But he is incredibly good at tossing out grandiose statements and sticking by them in a debate setting. Whether he was hammering Juan Williams in order to defend his children-should-have-the-opportunity-to-be-janitors comments or making a running-out-the-clock sale of devolving education back to county boards, Gingrich knows how to work crowds of this magnitude, and they rewarded him accordingly. Combine that with his second-place status in SC and he still has somewhere to go. Likely a huge book tour.

2. Santorum. We’ve seen Rick Santorum feisty in previous debates, and in some ways his style of contrast (as opposed to the sweeping statements of Gingrich) made for a harder night for Romney rather than any of the questions Romney himself got (besides the one on his tax returns, or hunting… see below). Early on, with an innocuous issue that Republican voters do not care about (voting rights for felons), Santorum took the moral high ground and lured Romney into a trap, getting him to commit to a hard-right position, then demanding an answer as to why he didn’t push for that position while he was in charge in Massachusetts. It was very clever, and unfortunately early in the debate. Later attempts to lure Ron Paul into similar traps were fruitless (Ron Paul can step into alternate dimensions to avoid traps at will, you know, or at least that’s what his base claims), while his one exchange with Gingrich only let Newt feed the audience some more applause lines. Santorum was tenacious but ultimately in the weeds, and that won’t be enough to unseat either Newt or Mitt.

3. Romney. Again, the question we really have to ask ourselves is: does it matter? Does it matter that Mitt Romney hedged like a topiary on whether he would or wouldn’t release his taxes? Whether he does or doesn’t support indefinite detention of U.S. citizens? What his position on the DREAM Act is? Whether he goes hunting? The answer is most likely no, at least not here, but if Romney performs this way in a general election debate with Barack Obama, he is going to get pasted across the wall. It’s not even that Obama is a good debater–those embarrassing debates with Clinton even after it was clear he had wrapped up the nomination should be enough to convince anybody of that–it’s that Romney showed exactly the trait people dislike about him: his unwillingness to commit to anything. Even a firm admission that he changed his mind is fine–the story he tells on abortion is actually one of his better discussions. It’s when he doesn’t commit to even answering a question (on tax returns, on felons, whatever) that he looks dangerously weak. It certainly looked bad on stage tonight, although he did get in a few good lines. If South Carolinians latch onto that waffling nature in the next debate, it could hurt him. Otherwise, it looks like smooth sailing through primary season for Team Romney.

4. Paul. There’s a gulf about twenty-eight times the width of the Strait of Hormuz between third and fourth in this debate. Not only did Paul sound tired, but he meandered and harped his way through questions for which he should really just have a damn straight answer for at this point in the campaign. It’s always clear that Paul does not “debate prep” per se. Rather, he takes the opportunities he’s given to talk about whatever he wants to talk about, which makes his responses frequently loopy, though occasionally striking in their common sense (his answer on the drug war and the sheer facts of incarceration was far and away the best). But it doesn’t help in a Republican primary that he still doesn’t have a straight answer about his comments on why he did or didn’t really support the way Obama went about killing Osama bin-Laden.

5. Perry. When Rick Perry was still the hottest thing on the national scene, I made two comparisons: one between him and Howard Dean, and one between him and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both have turned out to be true. Like Dean, Perry is an unprepared, initially-earnest candidate running on an ideologically pure platform. Like Ahmadinejad, he is also a vicious power-grubbing pragmatist in absolutist’s clothing. Being willing to call a NATO state “terrorists” without a second thought just after declaring that South Carolina, the first state to attempt secession from the Union over slavery, was now “at war with the federal government,” marks the apex and epitome of his soul-selling, quixotic, disastrous run. His performances have gotten better, and in terms of pure technical ability, tonight was one of the best nights for Perry. The problem was, it offered the audience a window into his smug, half-smiling soul, and offered us an Ahmadinejad’s choice: either he believes what he says and is a maniacal buffoon, or he’s doing it soullessly in a last-ditch play for the far-right vote, which might be even worse. I will say that Rick Perry’s performance tonight made me feel better for America as a whole. Unlike in Iran, Rick Perry will never be president.

6. The Republican Party. Early on in the debates, the focus was less on the candidates (since no one laid a glove on Romney in the initial Perry-battles) and more on the crowd: cheering the death penalty, booing a gay soldier, etc. Eventually this died out as the focus went to the candidates themselves. Tonight it came back with a vengeance. Here is a partial list of what the crowd did this evening:

-Cheered Rick Perry for saying that South Carolina was “at war” with the federal government, a dog-whistle Civil War reference
-Booed when a moderator mentioned that Romney’s father was born in Mexico
-Booed Juan Williams, a black Republican who served as a moderator, for asking a follow-up question on Gingrich’s children-as-janitors plan and whether he understood that people took Gingrich’s references in general to Obama as a “food-stamp president” as code for attacks on African-Americans
-Booed Ron Paul when he cited the Golden Rule, a rule promulgated in the West by one JESUS CHRIST
-Cheered Rick Perry for talking about how Marines who peed on the corpses of Taliban fighters shouldn’t be publicly admonished

In a partisan crowd, you’re going to get the worst of partisan behavior. Democratic crowds are, for the record, similar with certain pet issues (early retirement, government benefits). But none of the things mentioned above are going to play well beyond the twenty-four percent of voters who still thought George W. Bush was doing a good job when he left office. Republicans have become a shrinking party, and for all of the Democrats’ “big tent” mismanagement, they know they have the electorate covered on each and every one of the issues the crowd reacted to. It almost doesn’t matter who the nominee of a party like this is. He or she is not going to win unless he or she pivots back towards the style of campaign that George W. Bush ran in 2000. But with W. an anathema to all sides (Santorum slagged on him once again tonight), Republicans have nowhere to go. And a cornered national party, as the Democrats know from being one themselves in the 1920s, is a miserable and dangerous national party.

God help us, Republicans, Democrats, and everyone else. This nonsense is only going to get uglier from here.

LIVEBLOG

9:02 And away we go. A long Bret Baier intro. Shoot me. I’m so tired of these people and their foibles, and, based on the polls seeming to turn in massive favor to Romney, so are the voters. Not that Romney is great, either – but he sure does run the best corporate campaign.

9:04 First question to Gingrich, about his negative ads. He looks and sounds exhausted. Romney pretty easily bats him away. So much for a game-changer.

9:14 After some boring Perry/Paul filler (Perry swats at Romney over income taxes but nothing comes of it), the big fight comes between Santorum and Romney, with Santorum demanding Romney discuss his own beliefs on voting rights for convicted felons who have served their sentences. Santorum really gets the better of it, asking why Romney didn’t push what he now believes when he was Governor of MA.

9:31 Perry says South Carolina is at war with the federal government and people cheer for it. South Carolina, first state to secede from the Union in the Civil War. What. The. Fuck. I guess when you’re at 5% in the polls, you can say whatever you want. But now we really have come full circle.

9:33 Santorum talks about unemployment and devolving it to the states. Gingrich makes a good point, though again he’s tired: “99 weeks [the maximum time you can be on unemployment] is an associate degree.” Wails on Obama, calls him the “food-stamp president” again, gets tremendous applause.

My colleague (and Words With Friends nemesis) Alex Weinberg (AJW), via Twitter: “TALK ABOUT SPACE WHY ISN’T ANYONE TALKING ABOUT SPACE”

9:37 Doop de doo, a question to Romney about Europe’s credit ratings getting cut. He pivots to regulations and hammers Obama. Boring question, Romney makes the right choice in answering his own.

Finn, at the bar: “Why do they just say ‘regulations’? What regulations would they cut? There’s a difference between regulations saying whether you can put your pool in a certain place versus whether my bank can merge with your bank.”

9:39 Paul in a testy exchange re: defense spending, and “defense” versus “military.” He revels in the fact that the military support him 2:1.

9:44 Oh wow. Booing Romney’s father being born in Mexico? Nice work, South Carolina. He says he’d veto the DREAM act.

AJW: “The crowd literally just booed Mexico. The nation of Mexico.”

9:48 Santorum, on black Americans (they love to ask him about African-Americans), says the keys to avoiding poverty (as per the Brookings Institute) are completing high school, getting a job, etc. The bar erupts in “CAUSATION/CORRELATION,” but Santorum sells his whole “the Obamas are telling them they can’t get married.” He knows his conservative literature well, that Rick Santorum.

9:50 Can’t believe Ron Paul is actually discussing the fact that “we don’t see rich white people getting the death penalty very often.” Silence in the crowd, apart from applause at the back… and from one person sitting at the bar.

9:54 Gingrich gets softball questions that Juan Williams probably thought were hardball questions—regarding letting kids work as janitors, and then regarding the “foodstamp president” comment. He refuses to back down, and instead doubles-down, talking about how he wants to put people back to work and so forth. Republican audiences just looooove to hear someone thunder about how they are not racist after they cheered for a voter-ID law.

10:04 Oh dear, it was the Ron Paul hour in here. The question was “why were you against the action to kill Bin Laden?” He shouts forever, and things get awkward. Then Gingrich thunders away, winning an easy fight in front of this audience.

10:07 Ron Paul says “maybe we should have some kind of Golden Rule…” AND THE CROWD BOOS HIM. Oh wow. Do they know one of the many authors to whom the Golden Rule is attributed is, uh, Jesus?

10:09 Much consternation at the bar over Romney’s “strong military” comment. “Like more bombs in bombers sitting in a hangar would’ve prevented guys with boxcutters on 9/11.”

10:11 Oh! A question to Santorum. I’d forgotten he was there. Well, it’s on Syria. So Santorum pivots to Israel Israel Israel.

10:15 Perry starts out with an incredible statement, calling the government of Turkey “terrorists,” then talks about the Marines who peed on Taliban corpses, agrees that they need to be punished, and yet goes on to criticize the Secretary of Defense for saying kind of the same thing, but using the word “despicable.” Cheers, of course.

10:19 Romney says he’d support the newly-signed NDAA, which allows for indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. The crowd boos him. There’s some back-and-forth.

10:23 In the bar, a fight breaks out over George W. Bush expanding the deficit. For the record, George W. Bush has been mentioned more times in this debate than all the past debates put together. Meanwhile, Romney talks about Medicare in wonky fashion.

Because they aren’t buzzing candidates in this debate, it feels like it takes forever to get back to one of the five candidates. Now we’re finally heading back to Gingrich.

10:26 Oh, a good question on Medicare. After some mid-debate fire in his belly, Gingrich seems tired again as he describes the “Chilean model” rather than discuss whether his plan, where the government would cut a check to ensure a certain return on social security if their investments go bust, is “free market.” But he rallies late and does okay.

10:30 Santorum plunks along as a result of as sort of boring question on his corporate tax rates. But at the last possible minute, he pivots to (and smacks) Gingrich and Romney. The moderators give it to Gingrich first, which again, weakens Romney, but Gingrich, again tired, snaps tiredly at Santorum. Santorum gives a strange smile and accuses Gingrich of raising the deficit. No cheers… Gingrich, tired as he is, is winning this argument. Santorum overreached on a boring question, and let Newt talk about “balancing the budget four times.”

10:32 “Governor Romney, do you want your thirty seconds [to respond]? Or are you just enjoying this?” He takes the opportunity to side with Santorum (diluting the vote against him) and then pivots to his private sector experience.

10:38 Oh, here’s Juan Williams again. Asking an interesting question on the Second Amendment to Romney. He uses his whole “MA is a liberal state” thing to counter the argument. That’s kind of a waffly argument, but he gets away with it. When asked if he goes hunting, referencing the “hunting varmints” comment he made back in ’07, he admits to going “moose– I mean, sorry, elk hunting in Montana” and “pheasant hunting.” What an everyman you are, Mitt.

10:41 Simlar question about bona fides in Second Amendments to Santorum. He takes the time to hit Ron Paul on refusing to support the gun manufacturer liability bill. Paul murmurs away about tort reform, but then says he supports repealing all gun bans. Santorum, smartly, says he “needs to respond to that” and describes exactly why national government is necessary: “then you could just go to New York and Massachussetts and sue there.” That’s great advocacy for a strong federal government, Rick Santorum!

10:46 A fight on Super PACs between Gingrich and Romney. Nothing really either way, but Gingrich gets a good line in when he questions Romney’s management if he can’t manage the message of a Super PAC.

10:49 And a boring question to Perry about the border secured. He does hilariously say “the question is not ‘how much is it gonna cost,’” because, you know, this is the party of prudent finance except when it’s not.

10:50 Gingrich says he basically wants to devolve education all the way back to county boards and gets thunderous applause.

And then the debate ends! Oh.

Well, many thanks to The New American Tavern for a great event. Come by on Thursday and say “hi,” then contribute your thoughts to this ongoing adventure.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on ...read more

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