The five remaining Republicans vying for president gathered in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Monday night for a "raucous" debate that touched on everything from frontrunner Mitt Romney's hesitancy to release his tax returns to Newt Gingrich's support for having poor children work as janitors. The debate, sponsored by Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, was the first of two GOP faceoffs before Saturday's Palmetto State primary, when South Carolina voters will put their potentially race-ending stamp on the still-young GOP presidential nomination fight. (CNN hosts the second debate Thursday night.) Who helped themselves on Monday, and who lost?
"The four Republican candidates nipping at Mitt Romney's heels all needed a breakout moment at Monday night's debate," says Molly Ball at The Atlantic. Gingrich got it. The former House speaker (and former GOP frontrunner) was on fire, earning a rare standing ovation from the "rambunctious crowd" after answering a question from moderator Juan Williams about black people on food stamps and poor kids cleaning toilets with "a fiery crescendo of righteous indignation" about political correctness and President Obama. "This is the Gingrich Republicans fell in love with, zingy and compellingly bombastic." If this was a fight to be "the most enticing alternative to Romney," Gingrich won.
"Perry's performance left us wondering where this guy had been in the previous 14 debates," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. Like Gingrich, Perry won the crowd to his side, drawing "raucous applause" by saying the Palmetto State is "at war" with the federal government, and throwing Romney off his game by asking why he won't release his tax returns. It's probably too late for a Perry surge, but "if this debate had been held back in September or October, Perry might well be on his way to a big win in South Carolina," says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post.
"Romney didn't offer up a great performance," but he managed to avoid "the sort of disastrous moment that would have jeopardized his apparent march toward the GOP presidential nomination," says Brian Montopoli at CBS News. And "let's be honest: Mitt Romney only needed to avoid a complete meltdown to 'win' the debate," says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. He did that, thanks largely to his luck in drawing "opponents who lacked the focus to pin him down." At this point, those opponents have four days left to stop Romney, adds Montopoli. "Based on Monday's performance, it's difficult to see how they will do so."
Romney's performance was "intelligence-insultingly bad," says David Weigel at Slate. In a format where you have to be punchy and on-message, the usually slick Romney "dissembled beyond the point of comprehension." Yeah, it was clearly "Romney's worst debate," says Will Wilkinson at The Economist. He "seemed incredibly greasy, even for him, in his wriggling answer about disclosing his income taxes." And in the end, he sort of agreed to release them, probably in April, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. I don't know how he'll hide his "far lower rate of taxation and far, far, far higher income than 99.999 percent of the population."
"Paul had one of his worst debates of the cycle," says Montopoli at CBS News. The other candidates piled on when he defended his "relatively isolationist foreign policy," the crowd booed him, and Paul "struggled to articulate his libertarian ideals as clearly and forcefully as he has in the past." For Paul and his enthusiastic fans, "such trivial, cosmetic matters as 'performance' don't matter," says The Atlantic's Ball. But if he was "hoping to win converts Monday, that seems unlikely."
Overzealous audience members
I'm "pro-audience involvement — to a point," says The Washington Post's Cillizza. But Monday night's debate "went beyond that point." The audience members not only jeered Paul, but also gallingly booed the moderators for simply asking questions. That level of audience enthusiasm was great for Gingrich and Perry, who were "vamping for crowd reaction" with each answer, but it was bad for the debate: All that "conservative red meat thrown on the debate stage" didn't leave much room for serious and detailed discussion of the candidates' ideas and proposals.