South Carolina Republican debate: Winners and losers

at 11:36 PM ET, 01/16/2012

Another day, another Republican presidential debate. (Missed it? Don’t worry — we liveblogged the entire night right here.)


Republican presidential candidates, from left to right: Texas Gov. Rick Perry; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, participate in the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)
So, who won tonight’s set-to in South Carolina? And, more deliciously, who lost? Our answers are below.

WINNERS

* Newt Gingrich:This was the former House Speaker’s best debate of the entire race. With not all that much to lose, Gingrich let ‘er rip tonight and had the exuberant crowd — more on that below — eating out of his hand.

Gingrich’s characterization of President Obama as the “food stamp president” won him applause but it was nothing as compared to the standing ovation he received when challenged about that statement later by debate panelist Juan Williams.

So in Newt’s corner was the audience that even his far less sensical lines — “Only the elites despise earning money,” he said at one point — earned him applause.

Gingrich proved again tonight that when he is on — and he isn’t always on — he is the best debater in the field. His performance almost certainly solidified his place as the strongest alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the field. But will it do any thing more than that?

* Rick Perry: The Texas governor didn’t talk all that much but when he did he was very effective.

His line about the South Carolina being “at war” with the federal government drew raucous applause. His ability to step back from a fight between Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and label them both “insiders” showed how much he has progressed as a debater.

Perry’s performance left us wondering where this guy had been in the previous 14 debates. Unfortunately for Perry, his poor performances in the past virtually ensure that his strong showing tonight won’t make much difference.

He’s really just playing for his own legacy in the race at this point. Tonight, he did himself a solid.

* Barack Obama: If you assume — and we do — that Romney is the all-but-certain Republican nominee (whether that happens sooner or later remains anybody’s guess) then the Obama campaign got some good material to use against him tonight.

Romney committed — kind of, sort of — to (maybe) releasing his taxes in April, a pledge the Obama team will hold him to. He also stuck to his decidedly conservative line on immigration, which will make it more difficult for him to court Hispanics once the general election begins.

On a far more minor — but not entirely unimportant — note: You can bet the Democratic National Committee will have fun with Romney’s in­cred­ibly awkward answer on hunting. And we quote: “I am not the great hunter.”

* Super PACs/Stephen Colbert: The amount of time spent discussing super PACs was astounding. And, the more super PACs get talked about in such a high-profile setting, the more the people running them can make a convincing case to the people donating to them that they are having an impact. (Welcome to the political law of unintended consequences!)

Looming over the whole super PAC conversation — at least for us — was the image of a smiling Stephen Colbert and his “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow/The Definitely Not Coordinated With Stephen Colbert Super PAC”. Nothing but comic fodder in all of that back and forth for Colbert.

* Sand sculpture of the candidates : That thing rocked. The Fix secretly craves a sand sculpture of his visage.

LOSERS

* Ron Paul: Ugh. We don’t often feel bad for politicians — after all, they are putting themselves out there and inviting public scrutiny — but we felt some pangs for the Texas Republican Congressman tonight.

His answers on foreign policy were repeatedly booed and Perry even suggested that a gong should have been used to cut Paul off. While Paul-ites undoubtedly cheered their hero’s willingness to stand up for what he believes in when it comes to U.S. involvement in foreign countries, it’s just not a majority position — or anywhere close to it — in the Republican electorate of South Carolina.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If Paul would deflect all foreign policy questions and turn every answer into something about his economic views, he could be a real contender for the nomination. He won’t do that, so he isn’t.

* Audience: The Fix is pro-audience involvement — to a point. Tonight’s debate went beyond that point. Not only were moderators booed for asking questions — just doing their jobs, folks — but it became clear after about 15 minutes that Gingrich, Perry and, to a lesser extent, Santorum were all vamping for crowd reaction in each of their answers.

The result? Lots of conservative red meat thrown on the debate stage but not a lot of serious and detailed discussion that went beyond the candidates’ talking points.

(Sidebar: The level of audience involvement hurt Romney. Unlike his rivals who have nothing to lose by throwing out every rhetorical excess known to man, he has to be far more measured — knowing the Obama opposition research team is always watching.)

* Pop culture references: With former Utah governor Jon Huntsman out of the race, the level of pop culture knowledge on stage took a mighty hit. Romney referenced Bigfoot for pete’s sake!

One saving grace on that front: The extended debate between Bill O’Reilly and Bernard Goldberg in the runup to the debate over whether the latter had taken a picture with Ice Cube or Ice T. Just tremendous stuff.

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