Final Republican South Carolina Debate Liveblog/Recap

As Queen once sang, “here we are.” The last debate before the hugely consequential South Carolina primary. Keep mashing refresh as we liveblog the proceedings and recap the event, complete with candidate rankings.

Alright, folks. This is, what, the seventeenth debate? Joy unbounded. If you’re in New York City, check out The New American Tavern’s website for info about their meetup – watching this thing at a bar is terribly rewarding.


Well, this was it, and with so few candidates on the stage, questions of debate mechanics & structure actually start to matter more. A two-person debate is all about the candidates. A three- or four-person debate, as the country saw in 1992 on a national scale with Ross Perot, is more challenging. And even though Ron Paul was sort of the variety entertainment of the night, getting offered questions far after the other candidates had spent time attacking one another, the fact that the very first question went to Gingrich while opportunities to respond always went to Romney or Santorum made this an easy win for a less tired (and more hokey) Newt Gingrich. Unless that interview with his ex-wife that’s coming out in an hour or so implicates him in a cocaine-fueled orgy with Iranian men and features grainy pictures of him snorting blow off of a “swarthy” butt cheek while shouting “Death to Israel!” in Farsi, he is going to come out rather nicely from the day’s hectic events.

Just like with the last debate, the question will be: does it matter? Romney is certainly in a much weaker “inevitability” position now that news organizations are picking up the vote reversal in Iowa story as one in which Romney “lost” Iowa rather than the local party’s assertion that it was “a tie.” But he is massively ahead in Florida and is actually doing the legwork several campaigns in advance. It looks much more likely than it did last week that he’ll lose South Carolina, but with a bombshell win in the mother of all swing states, he might just break the South Carolina kingmaker tradition and win the whole thing. Hell, with the strength of his organization, assuming South Carolina is going to go Gingrich is a dangerous proposition at this point, too.

All in all, news managers and Intrade betters can rest easy tonight. This race still has legs going into the next few contests.


1. Gingrich. As I said in the recap, mechanics & structure matter. By giving the very first question of the debate to Gingrich about his ex-wife’s interview, John King pitched the most tantalizing down-the-middle fastball to Gingrich, and he smashed it out of the park. His answer played to all the strengths that made him a resurgent candidate in the first place. He smashed the news media. He smashed the moderator. He turned to his fellow-candidates and made them really unwilling co-conspirators by saying they all had endured “personal pain” and snapping that he was “tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.” After that, a visibly irritated Rick Santorum tried to get back to the issue, but the book was closed.

It was like that all night long, and some of it was by sheer virtue of Romney being next to Santorum, who unleashed the most attacks, and Gingrich being next to Paul, who offered Yoda-like insights into his own alternate universe (except for when he totally owned Rick Santorum late in the game in a similarly affable manner). John King, the moderator, almost always went to Romney after a Santorum broadside, and the one time that Romney made the mistake of attacking both Gingrich and Santorum, Gingrich smiled and said “I’ll defer to Rick.” He got exactly what he wanted out of this debate, and what Romney dreaded. He was able to come off strong and focused and not have his rivals really seriously question his convictions – even when they did, and his answers were quite thin (Santorum’s one major exchange on an individual mandate could’ve drawn blood had Santorum phrased it better), he persevered by giving strong, focused answers and then letting the others fight beneath him, smiling all the while.

By the end of the night, Romney was reciting almost verbatim from his stump speech. It was clear why – he now knows that this race will go on past South Carolina with Gingrich’s pair of strong showings. His national appeal is what he has left to defend.

2. Paul. As I said during the liveblog, what have they done with Ron Paul? He had a startlingly good and well-played showing tonight. A part of it was that the debate almost never focused on foreign policy, Paul’s 2008 strength and 2012 Achilles’ heel. A part of it was that the reedy, indignant, garble-worded Congressman we’d come to know and ignore was replaced by a kindly old man who, while occasionally derailed by unrelated stories, still managed to make cogent and occasionally downright non-doctrinaire points (talking about how mental health care for veterans was a serious concern was the high-water mark of his campaign).

Again, the mechanics worked against him – things that the other candidates got into spats about he only got to discuss at the tail end of their debates. At one point, while raising his hand to comment about abortion, John King tried to move on, only to be met with booing by the crowd. By the reaction shot, it was clear that it was not just Paul’s supporters – cutting an OB/GYN out of an abortion question was just downright bad thinking, according to the whole audience. And surprisingly, Paul not only gave a solid Republican-selling answer on morality and the sixties, he went on to hammer Rick Santorum, who jumped in at a perceived affront, by calling him “over-sensitive” and laying out his positions on states’ rights again in a calm way.

Paul’s performance tonight was so good that you almost wanted to forgive his Rick Perry-level horrifying conclusion in which he praised “South Carolina’s history of liberty” despite being overwhelmingly slave-populated and accordingly the first state to secede from the Union in the name of preserving slavery. Almost. Paul admitted tonight that he wished he were a better speaker. The country should be glad he’s not. He is the last-ditch reminder of a pre-Brown v. Board America, in which the discriminatory interests of constituents were gussied up as “states’ rights” and “freedom to choose.” It’s hard to remember that time in a post-George W. Bush era of massive expansion of federal power in the name of the Republican Party. But when we look at Ron Paul, we should remember it well.

3. Romney. Alas for Mitt Romney. At some point in the night, after literally answering “maybe” to the question of whether or not he would follow his father’s example and release many years of his tax returns, he gave up on trying to win South Carolina. You could see it in the way he pivoted to national attacks on Obama, pretending that he was still the invincible frontrunner. The inevitability argument still has play in Florida, and Florida has early voting, and Romney wants those early votes to put him prohibitively over-the-top.

It’s likely that they will. But what then? Tonight’s performance really couldn’t have inspired confidence. On the tough questions, particularly on his tax returns, the once confident and wonkish Romney just repeated snippets of things we’ve heard a lot in the past few debates from his stump speech. He no longer trusts himself. We’ve seen him recover from this before – his strong performance just before Iowa was what let him, at the time, be declared winner of the state – but it’s clear he wasn’t hoping to pull off a similar trick tonight.

Instead, he looked bored at having to actually answer serious attacks from Rick Santorum, who, despite evangelical endorsements and a newly-certified Iowa “not-loss,” is not going to be the nominee. He used up good lines he had clearly saved for Gingrich on Santorum, while Gingrich laughed all the way to the ballot box.

4. Santorum. The attack dog, rather effective in this role last time around, despite getting lost in the weeds, wound up at the bottom of the pack tonight. Again, the difference between five and four candidates made a world of impressionable contrast. Even in his closing, Santorum elected to go negative against Romney and Gingrich, but his voice betrayed his desperation. He doesn’t have the money or the liquidity to compete with the cash Gingrich has in the bank to paint himself as the credible anti-Romney. And it showed on stage. Worse, when he made attacks against both men, the moderator gave the response to Romney, the man Santorum does not need to beat in this race to stay in it.

But after tonight’s showing, including the above-mentioned serious drubbing by Ron Paul (during which Santorum had an unflattering slack-jawed look on his face somewhere between “excuse me, little man?” and “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy”), he is not going to accomplish what he wants. At one point, Santorum brought up that social conservative issues were “not important” to Gingrich when he helped advise the 2010 midterm candidates. His response was effectively a toned-down version of “yep, I did, and look, I got a ton of social conservatives into office.” And after that, Santorum has no argument. His “electability” is a kind of 1998 electability, back in the days when hard-line responses to social issues actually translated into serious votes. Time has passed Santorum by, and he is like Pat Robertson in 1988 – a decent retail campaigner absolutely unelectable on the national stage who happened to do incredibly well in Iowa.


8:02 Right, here we go. A goofy quickly-made opening intro (eliminating Rick Perry) introduces the candidates by giving them zinger-quotes: “Mitt Romney – the frontrunner.” “Newt Gingrich – on the rise.” “Rick Santorum – newly [something something].” “Ron Paul – army of young voters.”

8:04 Oh and now they get to walk out and be introduced. It’s fight night. Cheers are pretty uniform. Nice sound-editing. Romney’s mic is on – he says “hi guys” to Newt and Ron Paul. An awkward pause as it seems like they wait for the teleprompter to scroll past Rick Perry’s deleted intro.

8:08 candidate intros! Both Santorum and Romney lead with OH HI NEWT GINGRICH I HAVE A NICE FAMILY. Gingrich’s intro: I’m from the South! Paul:

8:09 ohhh, first question: Newt Gingrich, about your open marriage. Damn, he plays it perfectly. “Sir, would you like to take some time to respond to [the allegations]?” Gingrich: “No, but I will.” Immediate cheers, and he gets a standing ovation as he goes back to what he’s done best: skewer the moderator, calling the question “appalling,” saying he’s “astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.”

When King protests that CNN didn’t start the story, Gingrich gets even better, skewering the whole “elite media” for “protecting” Barack Obama.

8:13 Santorum kind of stumbles through wishing to attack but not attacking. Romney just says “let’s go on to the issues.” Paul attacks “corporations in the media,” but then mentions that “my wife of 54 years is with me tonight.”

8:15 First question, from the internet: what 3 specific programs would you implement to restore jobs as president? Ron Paul talks about his cutting program. Gingrich gives a good and SC-centric answer, but also swats at Bain Capital.

8:18 Romney, given a chance to respond, first goes after Barack Obama, using his “crony capitalism” keyword, and then goes on to defend Bain Capital, saying “I’m going to stand and defend capitalism all across this country.”

8:22 This is a very applaud-y crowd.

Santorum’s turn. He talks about the working men, saying how terrible it is for “working people” who are “paddling alone” to be getting on food stamps and medicaid, etc. He wants to talk not just about high finance. He’s playing a lot of the same tricks he played in Iowa, mentioning every city and town he’s visited. (Gingrich, by the way, picked up on this – he’s doing it, too.)

8:25 Very interesting question with a chilling statistic: 22% of veterans aged 18-24 in the post-9/11 army are unemployed.

Paul, answering the question, says you don’t want to target specific groups, but then goes on to talk about cutting the budget after World War II. Does he remember the GI Bill at all? Huh?

Ron Paul then pivots to talking about the medical health of soldiers. My goodness… is Ron Paul is talking about… growing the government?!

8:29 Santorum makes the similarly-passionate case, tries to pivot to Obama. But he’s just not as good an orator as Romney. Romney shows it, first talking about states’ rights, then pivoting and re-making Santorum’s point. He does repeat his “so-strong-no-one-can-think-of-testing-it” line.

8:30 ah hah, there we go. Gingrich, of course, corrects Ron Paul, adding in the GI bill to what was basically Ron Paul says. Then he says he wants to get to “basically 4% unemployment.” Oh joy.

8:32 Good question from the audience – how do you get rid of Obamacare?

Romney says his “executive order” strategy is just the beginning, but wants to “replace” Obamacare, talking about how he doesn’t want healthcare run like “Amtrak or the Post Office.” Good line.

8:34 Gingrich’s turn. He mostly parrots Romney, but then says “the problem I have w/kids getting their parents insurance” is that kids don’t get jobs under the Obama administration. “I have an offer to the parents of America,” he goes on, “elect one of us and your kids will move out.”

8:38 Santorum goes on SUPER-ATTACK-MODE, dedicating a huge amount o time to nailing Romney, then, with time running out, also gets in a dig at Gingrich supporting individual mandates “as late as 2008.”

Romney, in response… admits that RomneyCare isn’t perfect, and doesn’t really address the whole “how is it different than ObamaCare” question.

8:40 and they go back and forth a bit. Neither of them looks particularly good, as Romney is forced to deploy a good line on Santorum rather than Gingrich – “you want to go be Governor of MA, fine, but I want to be president of the United States.”

8:42 Santorum is frustrated, and when he’s frustrated, he gets petulant. Still, he gets Newt to admit that he was “wrong” to support an individual mandate… for ten years. But Santorum’s petulance makes his attack sound whiny rather than triumphant.

8:44 Finally to Ron Paul. Where was this version of Ron Paul all those debates ago? Time not campaigning in South Carolina must’ve done him good. He talks about how “the odds aren’t too good” for repealing Obamacare, but then, despite a rather credulous statement about how “when I first started practicing medicine in the sixties… there weren’t people suffering on the streets,” he sells his whole “cut everything” plan very well and gets an unreturned ding in at Santorum over Medicare Part D (prescription drugs for seniors).

As they go to commercial, a late-breaking announcement: Newt has released his tax returns! You clever dog, Newt.

8:50 Ruh-rooooh. Question to Santorum – what about Newt telling you to get out of the race? Santorum, somewhat flabbergasted, says “I don’t want a nominee where I have to worry about what he’s gonna say every morning.” Going on to point out that he actually beat Gingrich in both Iowa and New Hampshire, then says, to Gingrich, “these are not… cogent thoughts, Newt!” Gets laughs.

Gingrich next. Rather than pivot to attacking, he explains his whole “scale” thing, saying he thinks grandiose thoughts but this is a “big country of big ideas.”

8:54 Oh no… Santorum goes into his time serving with Newt, saying that Newt knew about the Savings & Loan Scandal (I think…?) and didn’t do anything about it. But he doesn’t actually address what scandal it is, allowing Newt to elide by with a “selective history” charge.

8:56 Romney gets in, talking about how he has been outside Washington and been a businessman and so forth. He says “I know how this economy works.” Surprisingly, Newt doesn’t hit him back on his taxes or anything.

9:00 Aww, Ron Paul. He gives a sort of goofy-grandpa answer on his taxes. To Romney. He still looks jumpy trying to answer this question, though he has thrown more red-meat Republican stuff about Obama. On a follow-up, he says he just wants to “release them all at once and get ‘em over with.” Uh…

9:05 Ooh, geez, Romney, you idiot. When asked if he’d follow his father’s example and release a huge number of years of tax returns, he says… “maybe.” The audience kind of boos. He shuffles around and says he’s not going to apologize for being successful, and raises his eyebrows at someone in the audience. Ugly, even after pivoting to his personal story to try and blunt it.

9:07 Interesting question about Apple and the number of people it employs in China. Santorum gives a long answer, talking about cutting corporate taxes and creating benefits for manufacturers who re-invest. Ron Paul makes a clever point: “the consumers have been benefited by a company well-run.” And he even goes into foreign companies building cars here! Again, who is this rather goofy but generally affable libertarian and what did he do with yelpy, jangly Ron Paul?

9:13 SOPA question! All four of them oppose it “in its current form.” Gingrich, who got to answer first, goofs around, asking about how he feels about “the interest of Hollywood.” Gets mild laughs, but then full-throatedly blasts the law. Romney just agrees. Paul talks about how he’s actively opposing it, with Democrats no less. Santorum is the only one who talks about intellectual property rights in a concerted way, saying “when did it just become that you could do anything on the internet?” Gets a strange mix of boos and cheers. Is someone mad about his Google problem? I think soooo…

9:21 Here we go again. Question: if there’s one thing you would do differently, what would it be?

- Newt: would’ve run his opening of his campaign differently (duhh)
- Mitt: first says “I would’ve worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa,” to much laughter, then says he would’ve spent more time talking about Obama, giving his stump speech.
- Santorum: wouldn’t change a thing! Of course. He’s turning on the folksy-o-meter. This is better for him than his impetuous-rage-o-meter.
- Paul: Wouldn’t do anything different per se, but says he would… work on learning to deliver his message! Admitting he’s not a great speaker.

9:25 Ooh, a garbled path-to-citizenship question. It goes to Gingrich, because he’s been in some favor of this. But he’s been prepping for this, and gives a very comprehensive answer with conservative red meat before finally pivoting to saying he doesn’t want to deport “grandmothers and grandfathers” and saying that “local citizens” would run “draft boards.” He calls it a “doable, solvable, practical solution.” He gets applause. Limited, but there.

9:28 Romney makes a mistake, here, tacitly endorsing Newt’s plan when asked because he makes references to his plan to outsource identity-checking to Amex, MasterCard, and Visa. He gives an answer that’s much less details-based than Gingrich’s. This is where Gingrich outshines Romney – where people pay attention to the details. Gingrich loves to throw out crazy ideas, and Romney likes to throw out his ideas disguised as platitudes. It works on the stump, but in debates, Gingrich comes off as “smarter.”

9:29 Romney and Santorum fight. Again. This is the peril of placement, the peril of television – Santorum is next to Romney on the stage. So even though in this case he probably has a better fight against Gingrich, the moderator asks Romney to fight back. Romney doesn’t want to talk to Santorum, he wants to talk to Gingrich. But it ain’t happening tonight. And that’s dangerous for Romney, since Gingrich is surging.

9:35 Ron Paul variety hour! First he says, let’s cut education and health for immigrants. Then he talks about his time in the military on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. This is all very rambly, but endearing.

9:37 Ooh, now we finally get a Gingrich/Romney question. Gingrich has a mailer out in South Carolina saying Romney is pro-abortion. Gingrich gives a sort of quiet half-answer, not questioning Romney’s personal belief but noting that Romney did the things in the mailer.

Romney, in a surprisingly impassioned first three-quarters of an answer, rebuts Gingrich’s allegation on technicalities, then says “I don’t think this is a time for any of us to be questioning our convictions.”

Ruh-roh, Gingrich hilariously defers to Santorum, who takes the opportunity to hammer Romney for being naive on how bills work when they go before the courts.

Although Romney fights back, and Gingrich gets some platitudes in, the damage has been done.

9:44 Ron Paul gets the audience to get him to go in on this abortion question! Again, that’s clever, and the cheers for him are much louder this time around. He talks about his time as a doctor and talks about “changing morality.” That’s a clever way to frame it.

9:46 Ahaha, oh wow, Ron Paul schools poor Rick Santorum. Santorum wants to get in with the “good doctor” by alleging that Paul’s last answer talked about him, then points out that Paul’s “right-to-life voting record” is around 50%, the same as Harry Reid’s. Ron Paul, in response, says “well, I wasn’t even thinking about you when I said that, so I’d say you’re over-sensitive.” The audience laughs and cheers in approval, and again, it’s more than Paul’s people this time.

Then Paul goes on to say he has a fundamental disagreement, yes: the states should be able to write their own laws on abortion, he says, and if you take away the jurisdiction of the federal government to do that, well, then Roe v. Wade disappears “overnight, not waiting for years and years [for a favorable court case.]” Leaving out the Fourteenth Amendment in all this, it’s a goldmine of a conservative talking point, and Santorum looks on in a very unflattering incredulous manner as Paul good-naturedly picks him apart.

9:51 Closing arguments: John King says “we all know the history of South Carolina…” yeah, great, sure, Civil War, just elide over that.

Ron Paul sure doesn’t! He says “we all know South Carolina has a history of liberty” AND THE AUDIENCE APPLAUDS. Oh, right, because secession to KEEP SLAVERY GOING is really ALL ABOUT LIBERTY. He goes on to talk about the national debt, of course, but the clear message is out there. It’s a good closing argument, but the offhand SC reference is a sign of why his views are so seductively toxic.

Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, after smacking poor John King all night, thanks him! Then he says “we have to defeat Barack Obama. He is the most dangerous president of our lifetime.” Then he plays to his strengths, saying that he will defeat Obama in “a series of debates” and prove that “a Saul Alinsky radical” is not deserving of re-election.

Romney effectively gives his stump speech. As much as he is good at this, it is something we have seen time and time again in these debates… he didn’t even mention South Carolina. He’s going for the national audience.

Santorum asks “the question is, who’s the best person to take on Barack Obama?” He says he’s a “conviction conservative.” But in attacking Romney and Newt for standing up for “the Wall Street bailout,” he sounds more frustrated and pleading than presidential, even though at the end he makes a more direct SC appeal.

And that’s it! Scroll up for the recap and rankings, and be sure to check out where The New American Tavern is having their primary vote watch party.

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 more


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