South Carolina saw the first shots fired in the American Civil War and whilst the latest Republican Presidential Debate wasn’t held at the famed Fort Sumter, it may as well have been for the clear divisions that it threw up within the Republican Party between a moderate and a team of rebels all seeking to lay claim to the proud conservative heritage of Ronald Reagan.
The hours heading into the debate were particularly tumultuous. A mere twelve hours beforehand former governor Mitt Romney had been cruising; the declared victor in Iowa and New Hampshire (an historical first for a non-incumbent presidential Republican candidate) and was expected to win Saturday’s South Carolina Primary and in the process finally see off any serious competition for the nomination. Sure, the primaries and caucuses would drag on until June, but realistically, a Romney victory this weekend would effectively seal the deal.
And then a series of interesting and unrelated incidents occurred…
For weeks many of us have been stating the blindingly obvious; namely that Romney has failed to gain the support of up to 70% of voters in the last two elections and that the polling in South Carolina had him similarly placed. However, with a field of other candidates remaining in the race, the Romney opposition was divided. This field thinned slightly earlier in the week with Ambassador John Huntsman’s decision to get out and back Romney. However, on Thursday afternoon, Texan governor Rick Perry followed suit, choosing instead to endorse Newt Gingrich. Suddenly, Gingrich surged.
At the same time, word leaked of a pre-recorded interview that Newt Gingrich’s second wife had conducted for ABC News in which she referred to the Speaker’s request for an open marriage that would allow him to see his then mistress and now latest wife.
Compounding this was the breaking news from Iowa, where it seems that eighteenth century voting methods no longer suffice (strangely enough). Having declared Mitt Romney the winner by a paltry 8 votes in the immediate aftermath of the caucuses, the final (?) tally was revealed to put Rick Santorum ahead by some 34 votes, raising the memory of Florida 2000.
The upshot of all this? Romney, the former man to beat, was now stripped of his win in Iowa and sinking in the polls to a resurgent Newt Gingrich, whose own reputation was being torn to shreds by a vengeful wife, whilst his latest spouse stood by his side. As the debate approached, its potential importance mounted and one wondered what would happen next?
The debates got off to an explosive start. The big question was always going to be as to when the issue of marital fidelity would be raised, and the answer was, immediately. Straight out of he box moderator John King of CNN asked Gingrich if he would like to address the allegations. “No, but I will” he responded and took the opportunity to attack John King and CNN for having the nerve to ask him such a question. It really was all about Newt for much of the debate from then on.
Interestingly, the expected fireworks between Newt and Romney failed to develop, instead Rick Santorum, after a VERY shaky start, attempted to take the opportunity to seal the deal with conservative voters and attacked Gingrich whenever possible, going after his record as Speaker in particular, suggesting that ‘grandiosity has never been a problem’ for Gingrich. At times he spoke through clenched teeth and appeared desperate to remember his script and adhere to his message. Fundamentally, Santorum did himself no favours when he acknowledged that being in he last four was an achievement, a statement that spoke to the heart of his dilemma: He’s not a winner. He also had a complete inability to look his opponents in the eye when attacking them, making him look weak, feeble and cowardly. He must surely be the next candidate to drop out and leave the floor for a straight square-off between Romney and Gingrich.
The bias against Ron Paul in terms of coverage continued unabated, which the candidate noted at one point. When he could get a word in edgeways Paul remained as committed as ever to delivering his thoughts and perspectives in his own unique manner, something he admitted could do with some fine-tuning.
With all of the focus, it really was Gingrich’s night and he didn’t disappoint. More a showman than a politician, one expected to start seeing rabbits come from up his sleeves as he pulled one set of figures and historical facts out after another, referencing his books and time in office and work with the mighty Ronald Reagan. It was clear that Gingrich had a full mastery of the issues and a calm presentation style that would be a benefit in a general election. His weakness of course, is self-embellishment, something Romney highlighted in reference to his virtual exclusion from the Reagan diaries. He also failed to convince in terms of immigration when he suggested establishing citizen’s panels to screen illegal immigrants to decide who could stay and who should be expelled.
The big loser was Mitt Romney who appeared smug and glib and time and again was forced to pivot to prepared answers in response to tough questions. On more than one occasion he appeared to indicate his fatigue, not physically, but with the annoying matter of having to go through the motions of these tiresome debates with candidates he believes he should defeat without trying. The debate was balanced and smart at times, and certainly did not descend into the sort of name-calling and adherence to talking points that occur so often in US politics. It was well moderated and well conducted, reflecting well on all concerned. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was no single knock out punch landed. If anything, there appeared to be more animosity between Gingrich and King than between the candidates, following the heated opening exchange. It is almost certainly the opening exchange for which the debate will be remembered, which is a shame as the Speaker’s private life really had very little impact beyond this.
What was missing? Only little things like foreign policy, Iran, national security, financial policy…
Did the debate tell us anything? It confirmed Ron Paul’s tenacity and determination to adhere to his core beliefs and Libertarian sentiments; Santorum had a faltering start, took the fight to Gingrich but appeared to falter under the gaze of Mitt Romney; Gingrich appeared large, but smart and a master of the issues and gave a very focused closing statement; Romney came across as smug and lacking in the depth required for the job he is once again seeking and singularly failed to ask for the voters to turn out and support him on Saturday. You know what they say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get…. Saturday will be fascinating.