And then there were five.
With former Utah governor Jon Huntsman having bowed out of the GOP presidential primary race this morning, the remaining quintet of White House hopefuls will take the stage in Myrtle Beach for tonight’s Fox News/Wall Street Journal/South Carolina Republican Party debate.
Primary day is five days away, and a new Gallup poll shows former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is going from strength to strength, leading his nearest GOP rival by 23 points nationally.
Can former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) or Texas Gov. Rick Perry shake things up tonight? Stay tuned as we liveblog tonight’s debate from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern, and refresh this page often for the latest updates!
11:20 p.m. | New Ron Paul ad slams Romney, Santorum and Gingrich
Think Monday night’s debate was no-holds-barred?
Take a look at Ron Paul’s newest ad.
The Texas congressman’s campaign announced near the end of tonight’s debate that it is going up with a minute-long TV ad slamming former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).
In it, Paul’s camp slams Gingrich as “a serial hypocrite who lobbied for Freddie Mac before the housing crisis and for the individual mandate before Obamacare.”
It blasts Santorum as “a counterfeit conservative who opposes right-to-work, massively increased spending and funded Planned Parenthood.”
And it takes aim at Romney as “a flip-flopper who’s been on all sides, supported TARP bailouts and provided the blueprint for Obamacare.”
“Three men. One vision. More big government. More mandates. Less freedom,” the ad says. The last 30 seconds of the spot praise Paul as a small-government conservative and “the one who will restore America now.”
Paul is polling well behind his rivals in the Palmetto State. But his new spot could shake up the race in its final five days.
11 p.m. | King of Bain? Not so much
The debate has wound down, and what stands out perhaps even more than what was said is what went unsaid.
Newt Gingrich’s and Rick Perry’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital?
They received a brief mention at the debate’s outset, but then the contenders turned their focus to other issues.
Romney, meanwhile, did not give a direct answer when asked when he will release his tax returns.
“You know, I looked at what has been done in campaigns in the past with Senator McCain and President George W. Bush and others,” Romney said. “They have tended to release tax records in April or tax season. ... I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I’ll keep that open.”
April, of course, would be well after the early state contests have run their course – meaning that Romney’s tax records would likely become general election, not primary-race, fare.
10:55 p.m. | Romney: Gingrich super PAC ad 'probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot'
“Mr. Speaker, you have a super PAC ad that attacks me,” Mitt Romney tells Newt Gingrich. “It’s probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.”
As in previous debates, the conversation has taken a turn away from the issues and toward the candidates’ use of so-called “super PACs,” outside groups that can accept unlimited donations but that are prohibited from coordinating with parties or candidates.
Romney’s quip comes after Gingrich blasted a pro-Romney super PAC’s ad that claims the former House speaker supports government funding for abortion.
“Well, typically it’s 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,” Gingrich said to a big round of applause from the crowd.
Romney argues that it’s “not quite right” for Gingrich to contend that the two have different standards when it comes to super PACs, and that the pro-Gingrich super PAC ad attacking his own record is off the mark.
“We all would like to have super PACs disappear,” Romney says, and “not have this strange situation where we have people out there who support us who run ads we don’t like.”
It’s a factor that has defined the GOP race this cycle – not only the presence of super PACs in the early states, but also as a topic of disagreement in nearly every debate.
10:40 p.m. | Romney on offense, Gingrich on defense on entitlements
It’s a sign of how much entitlement reform and the country’s debt have receded as issues that they’re only being raised for the first time in the debate an hour and a half in.
Mitt Romney argues that he would means-test entitlement programs and would propose a premium-support program for future, not current, retirees, such as the one proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
He then pivots to attack President Obama for Democrats’ move to slice about $500 billion from the Medicare Advantage program in the national health care law, a theme that congressional Republicans hit hard during the 2010 midterms. (Democrats argue that the move was a $500 billion reduction in inefficiencies and future costs for the program, not a reduction in benefits.)
While Mitt Romney goes on offense, Newt Gingrich finds himself on defense when asked about his plan for entitlement reform.
“Well, it is, as a historian, a fact-based model that has Galveston, Texas, and the entire country of Chile as a testing ground,” he says.
He adds that “95 to 97 percent of young people because it is such a big return on your investment, you’d be relatively stupid not to do it.”
10:25 p.m. | 'The right thing for Osama bin Laden was the bullet in the head that he received'
Foreign policy is now the name of the game, and the shift of topic reveals a crowd that is decidedly less friendly to Rep. Ron Paul than at previous debates.
The Texas congressman gets booed by the crowd when suggesting that U.S. foreign policy should follow the golden rule.
Newt Gingrich gets a warmer reception for this line:
“Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.”
Mitt Romney also receives cheers from the crowd when asked how he would have handled Osama bin Laden.
“The right thing for Osama bin Laden was the bullet in the head that he received,” says Romney. He also argues against negotiating with the Taliban.
”We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban,” Romney says.
But it’s Rick Perry – who has had his share of “oops” moments at previous debates – who turns in a performance that wins the loudest cheers from the crowd, arguing that the U.S. should “go to zero on foreign aid.”
The questioning turns to the National Defense Authorization Act, and Mitt Romney says he would have signed the bill – which some critics argue allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. His answer gets some boos from the crowd.
Romney argues that those conspiring against the U.S. are committing “treason, and in America, we have a right in this country to take those people and put them in jail.”
He adds: “I don’t think he’s going to abuse this power, and I know that if I were president I would not abuse this power.”
On this question, Paul gets some applause for taking aim at the law.
“Don’t give up on our American judicial system so easily, I beg of you,” he says.
10 p.m. | Gingrich stands by comments on child labor laws
Mitt Romney may be the frontrunner, but Newt Gingrich is certainly feeling the heat in this debate.
Fox News contributor Juan Williams asks the former House speaker about his comments on child labor laws.
“Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps,” Williams says. “You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”
“No, I don’t see that,” Gingrich says, to big cheers from the crowd.
He notes that his daughter worked as a young woman.
“She liked learning that if you worked, you got paid,” Gingrich says. “She liked being in charge of her own money. And she thought it was a good start. ... Only the elites despise earning money.”
He then turns his focus to President Obama and argues that “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.”
The exchange is a reminder that for all his appeal to conservative voters, some of Gingrich’s more controversial remarks continue to dog him.
9:50 p.m. | Gingrich on unemployment: 'The fact is 99 weeks is an associate degree'
Newt Gingrich gets some big love from the audience when he suggests that unemployment insurance should be tied to enrollment in a job-training program.
“The fact is 99 weeks is an associate degree,” he says to loud applause. He follows up by focusing – as Romney has – on the White House, arguing that Obama is “the best food-stamp president in American history.”
It’s one of Gingrich’s strongest moments in the debate thus far.
Next up, Ron Paul gets a question about his position on cutting defense spending – a question with which Paul disagrees out of hand.
“I would suggest you’re very confused about my position,” Paul says, in a moment reminiscent of Herman Cain’s “The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect.”
Paul argues that he is focused on the difference between military spending and defense spending, and wins some applause when he contends that there is waste in Pentagon spending that should be eliminated.
9:35 p.m. | Santorum, Romney spar on voting rights for felons
We’re a half-hour into the debate and we now have our first major clash between Mitt Romney and one of the rivals vying to unseat him as the frontrunner – Rick Santorum, who turns a question about super PACs into a query for Romney on voting rights.
“Governor Romney’s super PAC has put an ad out there suggesting that I voted to allow felons to be able to vote from prison. ... I would ask Gov. Romney, do you believe people who are felons, who’ve served their time, who’ve exhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?” Santorum asks.
“First of all, as you know, the PACs that run ads on various candidates, as we unfortunately know in this country—“ Romney begins. But Santorum cuts him off.
“I’m looking for an answer to the question first,” Santorum says, to loud applause from the crowd.
“We have plenty of time, I’ll get there. I’ll do it in the order I want to do,” Romney responds, to a noticeably less-enthusiastic reception from the crowd.
Santorum goes on to ask why Romney didn’t try to change the law on voting rights for felons while he was governor, “if in fact you felt so passionately about this.” Romney’s defense? “I had an 85-percent Democratic legislature.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumps in near the end of the exchange and rails against “insiders,” arguing that “Washington, D.C., needs to leave the states alone and let the states decide these issues.”
After a big round of applause, Romney says he agrees with Perry and the debate moves on.
9:20 p.m. | Romney keeps the focus on Obama; Paul stands by Santorum attack
The conversation turns to jobs, and Romney –in keeping with his frontrunner status -- keeps his sights on Obama, arguing that the president doesn’t have a jobs plan.
“I’ve got one already, and I’m not even president yet,” Romney says.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), meanwhile, is asked about his minute-long ad blasting former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Does he regret the ad?
“My only regret is that I couldn’t get enough in that one minute as I should have,” Paul says to applause.
9:15 p.m. | Gingrich to Romney: Answering Bain questions is 'part of his responsibility'
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is asked out the gate to defend his attacks on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s (R) record at Bain Capital.
Says Gingrich, responding to the ads is “part of (Romney’s) responsibility as a candidate.”
“I don’t think raising questions is a prerogative only of Barack Obama. ... I raise questions that I think are legitimate questions,” Gingrich says.
Romney responds by ticking off a list of his accomplishments, from being asked to head the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics to his tenure at Bain and as governor.
“My record is out there. I’m proud of it,” Romney says. He adds that he believes he’s the best candidate to take on President Obama because he’s “someone who understands how the economy works, having worked in the real economy.”
Big cheers from the crowd.
9 p.m. | Huckabee on Romney Web ad: I have not endorsed any candidate
Mike Huckabee responds to the Romney Web ad that featured a clip of him defending the former Massachusetts governor:
The use of the actual audio from my show, The Huckabee Report, was not authorized for use by any candidate. My quotes are public domain and just like the numerous complementary things I have said about other candidates they have been used to highlight something positive in a political ad. However, this in no way is an endorsement of any candidate. I have not nor do I anticipate endorsing anyone until after the primary at which time I will fervently campaign for the Republican nominee so that we can make sure Obama is a one term President. Any attempt by anyone to imply an endorsement of a candidate or opposition to a candidate is not true.
8:45 p.m. | Did Romney really win Iowa?
When the dust settled after the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) was leading former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) by eight votes.
But could Santorum actually be the winner?
The final numbers will be different from those released on caucus night. One campaign source says the vote count as of midday Monday showed Santorum ahead by 80-something votes. If that number holds through certification of the last precincts, Santorum will win. Of course, there is always the possibility that some of the final precincts will contain discrepancies that put Romney back on top. It’s just not clear.
8:30 p.m. | Romney camp features Huckabee in new Web ad
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the 2012 GOP presidential race. But you might not know it from a new Web ad released by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s (R) campaign.
The 30-second spot, “Huckabee,” features clips of the Fox News host and 2008 GOP presidential hopeful defending Romney from attacks on his record at Bain Capital.
“It’s surprising to see these attacks coming from fellow Republicans. ... They ought to know that if downsizing can turn around a failing company, then at least it prevents all the jobs from being lost, and sets up a stronger company that can grow and start re-hiring,” Huckabee says in the spot. The clip is from a Jan. 10 airing of “The Huckabee Report.”
Huckabee, a favorite among social conservatives, placed second in South Carolina in 2008, taking 30 percent to Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) 33 percent. Although he has not endorsed a candidate this time around, Huckabee has remained active in the GOP race: Over the weekend, he co-hosted an event for the GOP contenders in Charleston, and last month he held a 90-minute forum on Fox News Channel.