South Carolina Republican debate: Winners and losers

at 10:35 PM ET, 01/19/2012

The final Republican presidential debate before Saturday’s all-important South Carolina primary is over.

We live-blogged the whole thing and, to be honest, came away generally impressed with the performances by each of the four men on stage.

Our attempt to break out some winners and losers from the proceedings is below. Agree or disagree with our picks? The comments section awaits.

WINNERS

* Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator is an underrated debater and he proved it again tonight. Time and time again he took the fight to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, seeking to lump them together as ineffective change agents in voters’ minds.

Santorum’s best moment of the night came in an exchange with Gingrich in which he effectively made the case that the former Speaker was a risk for Republican voters due to his tendency to say and do controversial things. “He has no discipline, no ability to pull things together,” Santorum said of Gingrich. If you were on the fence between the two men, that exchange may have tipped you over to Santorum’s side.

The danger in debates for Santorum is always that he looks petulant, complaining about his speaking time (or lack thereof) and his opponents’ attacks. He kept that to a relative minimum tonight.

Santorum was the central mover in the debate. And that makes it a win for him.

* Newt Gingrich: The first five minutes of the debate were Newt’s finest hour in the race. The other 115 minutes were only so-so. But it probably doesn’t matter.

Gingrich’s condemnation of debate moderator John King — and the entire mainstream media — for leading off the debate by asking him about the allegations made against him by his second wife was powerful and effective. It took what was seen as a potential weak spot for Gingrich and turned it into a moment of considerable strength. He won the crowd over instantaneously. It will be, without question, the portion of the debate that leads most news stories and cable coverage of the event.

Given all of that, it’s hard not to call Gingrich a winner. But, the truth is that he faded as the debate went along and was one-upped several times by Santorum. But, again, that almost certainly doesn’t matter.

* Mitt Romney on his wealth: For the first time, Romney found a compelling message when it came to questions about his considerable personal wealth.

“I am not going to apologize for being successful,” Romney said, before adding: “I didn’t inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned.”

That is exactly the answer Romney needs to give — now and if/when he becomes the Republican nominee — about being rich. He needs to not hide from it but embrace it, casting himself as a shining example of the American dream realized.

* Twitter: What did we do during debates Twitter existed? Not a heck of a lot, wethinks.

LOSERS

* Ron Paul: Before the Paul supporters flood the Fix inbox with emails protesting him making the “loser” list, let us say this: It wasn’t his fault.

Paul was simply excluded from much of the debate. There was even a moment when John King tried to move on to the next question without calling on Paul and the supporters of the Texas Republican in the audience cried out until he was recognized.

Regardless of the reason though, Paul wasn’t an active part of this debate. He would get his chances to speak, answer the question and then the debate would move on. He rarely engaged the other candidates or they him. At this point, that’s not enough to give Paul any momentum in the Palmetto State.

* Mitt Romney on tax returns: For the second straight debate, Romney fumbled around when trying to answer questions about when he might release his tax returns.

His defense of why he doesn’t want to release them right now — because he would be attacked by Democrats — was decidedly odd and Romney spent more time than he needed to trying to explain it.

Luckily for Romney, neither Gingrich not Santorum seemed particularly interested in pushing him on the tax return issue — perhaps because they thought Romney had done himself enough damage on his own on the issue.

* Foreign policy: There’s little question that the average voters cares about the economy first, second and third when it comes the 2012 election.

But there was no discussion of foreign policy in tonight’s debate. None. And being commander-in-chief means more than simply trying to turn the country’s economy around.

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