A few thoughts on the Myrtle Beach debate

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

This debate was held against the background of things going Mitt Romney’s way: he continues to be ahead, tenuously in some polls and by growing margins in others, in South Carolina as well as nationally, even as he finds himself the target of sustained attacks by the pro-Newt Gingrich superPAC and, in a sudden surge, by Rick Santorum.

Santorum, fired up from a long day’s campaigning ending in a talk at the Faith and Freedom rally in a tent across the street from the debate site, the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, attacked Romney harshly in the first segment on, of all issues, his support for voting rights for felons who have served their time. Santorum had voted to restore their voting rights and argued that a pro-Romney superPAC ad against him on this issue was misleading (because it showed a prisoner in a jumpsuit while he had backed them only for those who had served their time and been through probation and parole). The two parried to show dominance, and I thought Romney was at an disadvantage on this, but it was an odd choice of issue for Santorum to take Romney on.

I thought Romney was somewhat ragged in the first half of the debate and that his responses to attacks on his record at Bain were not as fully developed as they should be. He wasn’t as good on not bailing out Europe as he has been on other occasions. He became more solid on foreign policy and the treatment of enemy combatants, on entitlements and on segueing to his basic campaign themes as time went on. If South Carolina voters are determined to pick presidents—as South Carolina Republican Chairman assured viewers in a video that they were, and in fact they have played a key role in determining the Republican nominees in every cycle since 1988—he probably came through satisfactorily.

Newt Gingrich was not put as much on the defensive on the pro-Gingrich superPAC ad as he probably should have been, and he got marvelous applause from the audience on some later points, as on his calling for high school children to do janitorial work and on defending his Social Security proposal. Santorum scored well when he brought up, as he does in many of his extended public appearances, the Brooking study that showed that virtually no one who graduates from high school, works at a job and doesn’t have children until after getting married end up in poverty, he made an excellent point, and one which is probably not familiar to most listeners, even political junkies.

Rick Perry continues to improve and made the point—which Romney, Gingrich and Santorum have done on other occasions—that the Obama administration has conducted a “war on religion.” He was on national defense and reminded us a number of times (why didn’t he use this statistic in earlier debates?) that Texas has the 13th largest economy in the world. Ron Paul was Ron Paul.  

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner