When Gingrich was down and almost out last fall, he used the debates to revive his candidacy. Once he surged in the polls and became a threat to Romney, he was battered by millions of dollars in negative ads. His campaign went into a tailspin. Now, after weak finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, his candidacy is on the line. He knows that a bad loss here on Saturday probably would mean the end.
That is why the former House speaker grabbed for the debate lifeline again in what may have been one of the last chances for anyone to slow Romney’s momentum. Although he was the recipient of some tough questioning, he emerged as the favorite of the raucous audience in Myrtle Beach, winning repeated applause for his answers.
Had Romney lost the Iowa caucuses or turned in a less impressive victory in the New Hampshire primary, the dynamic of this race might have been far different. That is the problem that all of Romney’s rivals must contend with in the final days here, most notably Gingrich. The former speaker has many opponents this week, including himself and his own history.
Romney remains his main target, but former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who nearly defeated Romney in Iowa, is his major nemesis. Both men yearn to be the conservative alternative to Romney. Santorum has not taken much advantage of what he did in Iowa or of the apparent support he received last weekend from socially conservative leaders.
On Monday night, he did not shine. At one point, he and Romney ended up in an argument about voting rights for violent felons. Santorum put Romney on the defensive, but the topic was one that is not likely to win Santorum many votes among conservative Republicans this weekend.
If Santorum was lackluster on Monday, Gingrich was not. He once again hectored Romney about his record in the private sector and creating jobs as governor of Massachusetts. He defended himself against those who have criticized him for attacking capitalism in an effort to stop Romney.
Gingrich said it is important for the GOP to test a prospective nominee before Democrats get their hands on him. “We need to satisfy the country that whoever we nominate has a record that can stand up to Barack Obama in a very effective way,” he said.
Gingrich dismissed a question about whether calling Obama the “food stamp president,” a staple of his rhetoric for months, carried racial overtones. He challenged criticism of a controversial statement earlier in the campaign in which he proposed having children in poor neighborhoods work as school janitors. Critics have called him heartless. Denouncing political correctness, Gingrich brought the conservative audience to its feet cheering in his defense.