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Four fight in a final debate before South Carolina decides.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The race for the Republican presidential nomination has finally come down the Final Four, and the swift reduction of the field helped make Thursday night’s debate here arguably the most entertaining of the 17 televised debates during this long campaign.
Yet the debate was in some sense anti-climactic, coming as it did on the heels of so much drama elsewhere on the South Carolina campaign trail. “The last 24 hours, I think, will go down in primary history as probably one of the most tumultuous 24 hours that we’ve seen,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said after the debate at the North Charleston Convention Center, televised on CNN.
Thursday’s biggest developments in the campaign preceded the debate by several hours. First, ABC News began releasing excerpts of its interview with Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife, who claimed that the former House Speaker had asked her to have an “open marriage.” Next, officials in Iowa reported that the final count from the Jan. 3 caucus showed that Santorum had beaten former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney there. Then, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called a press conference to announce that he was suspending his campaign and endorsing Gingrich.
Perry was the second candidate to drop out of the race this week, following Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s withdrawal Monday. This winnowing of the Republican field in South Carolina, strangely delayed after the usual proving grounds of Iowa and New Hampshire, produced a quartet of candidates — Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — who mixed it up in a feisty battle that began with a volatile exchange between Gingrich and CNN moderator John King.
King asked if Gingrich would like to respond to the accusations made by his ex-wife, Marianne. “No,” said Gingrich, “but I will.” This produced cheers from the Republican audience, and then Gingrich said: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.… To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.” Gingrich finished his mini-lecture by saying, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.” Less than 10 minutes after the CNN broadcast began, Gingrich had already received two standing ovations.
Gingrich’s masterful debate performance, however, did not change the fact that it was he — and not the “elite media” — who divorced his second wife in order to marry Calista Bisek, a congressional staffer 23 years his junior with whom he had been having an affair during the same period when he led House Republicans to impeach President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The latest Rasmussen Reports poll of South Carolina Republicans showed that Gingrich had pulled ahead of Romney prior to Thursday’s debate, and if his strong showing enables Gingrich to win Saturday’s primary, it will put a serious dent in Romney’s claim to be the “inevitable” GOP nominee. Conservatives who have supported a series of “Not Mitt” candidates in an attempt to prevent Romney’s nomination will have cause to celebrate such a result.
However, a win here by Gingrich might jeopardize the Palmetto State’s boast, “We pick presidents.” Since 1980, no Republican has won his party’s presidential nomination without winning the South Carolina primary, and Gingrich’s long-term campaign prospects are problematic. Even in one of the most conservative states in the country, Gingrich has struggled to close the deal with GOP primary voters, and 30-something percent of the vote here would scarcely be enough to make him an overwhelming favorite for the nomination. The obstacles to Gingrich’s candidacy involve more than Romney’s well-funded campaign and opposition by the “elite media.” There is also the problem of Gingrich himself.
It was Santorum who summarized this problem best after he was asked by CNN’s King about a suggestion Gingrich made this week that Santorum should quit the race and endorse Gingrich for the good of the conservative cause. “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich, he handles it very well,” Santorum said, pointing out that he had finished ahead of the former speaker in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And he characterized Gingrich’s style as a leader of House Republicans during Santorum’s years in Congress: as “an idea a minute. No discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together.” Gingrich is prone to “worrisome” outbursts, Santorum said, contrasting this with his own “steady” conservatism.
However valid that criticism might be, it appears that conservatives in South Carolina are rallying behind Gingrich as the best hope to halt Romney’s momentum and, if Romney loses here Saturday, the battle between the GOP’s Final Four will continue on to Florida, which holds its primary 10 days later. It may yet be a while before the championship of this long presidential tournament is decided.