Mitt Romney has sailed about as close to defeat in South Carolina as he is likely to, with a disastrous performance in the first of two South Carolina debates.

Repeatedly pummelled by Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum on matters as diverse as his Massachusetts governors’ record, his conduct at private equity firm Bain Capital, his refusal to release his tax returns, and more besides.

Romney was nervous and scatty in response, unable to project authority. Gingrich, by contrast, ran the room, clearly establishing his own authority and gaining that rare thing, a standing ovation, putting his nearest conservative rival, Santorum, in the shade.

Santorum got a good punch in on Romney, whose PAC has been running ads damning Santorum for wanting to restore the voting rights of released felons (five years after their release). Santorum posed him a direct question, Romney firmly said he wouldn’t extend the vote, and then Santorum pointed out that he had extended a far more liberal law in Massachusetts.

Romney had an answer, but it involved him in laying out the fact that he was a governor of the most liberal major state in the nation, and therefore had to compromise. But by then he had already been hammered on his business and personal finances. Gingrich, whose super PAC film King of Bain Michael Moore said he would have been happy to have made, noted that he was 47th in job creation during his gubernatorial tenure, Perry repeated his “vulture capitalism”. It then went like this:

PERRY: Well, let me go back and say that having been the governor of the state that created over a million net new jobs, that we are all about capitalism, and I think our record proves that we are all about capitalism.

But I visited Georgetown, South Carolina. It was one of those towns where there was a steel mill that Bain swept in, they picked that company over and a lot of people lost jobs there …

BAIER (MODERATOR): Governor Romney, 30 seconds.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Well, Brett I need a little longer than that, we had a couple of …

BAIER: Well there will be plenty of time.

ROMNEY: Well …

BAIER: Thirty seconds for this time.

ROMNEY: Let’s take a little more time than that. First — first of all, I think — I think Governor Perry makes a — a very good point about — about Georgetown. For those that don’t know, it was a steel mill and — and my firm invested in that steel mill and another one in Kansas City, tried to make them successful. Invested there for seven or eight years. And ultimately what happened from abroad, dumping steel into this country lead to some 40 different steel mills being closed.
And — and that was one of those. I understand what happens when China cheats, or when others cheat and dump products into this country. That’s one of the reasons I’m running is to make sure we crack down on cheaters. By the way, we also started a new steel mill with new technology in Indiana. That one’s growing and thriving. I — I think that experience is what America needs in a president. Secondly I — I agree with the governor with regards to regulations …

Transcripts usually make dialogue look more cogent, but it’s pretty easy to see why Republicans everywhere were face-palming. And in the flesh it was worse. Obama is a far-from-killer debater, but if Romney brought that sort of game to the podium, he would be gone in 60 minutes.

That’s what Gingrich has been saying all along, as part of his claim that the selection of Romney is a false hope. By his confidence, force and authority Gingrich confirmed a lot of that. By bringing his battiness — he is the Jack Donaghy of the GOP, always muttering about Ronald Reagan and “lean six sigma” — he reminded people that he can’t be trusted to not shake the rivets loose entirely by August. That was in evidence when he was brought back to his suggestion that school janitors could be sacked, and replaced by children.

That has led to much fun, but such needling only makes Newt stick to it all the more. If you have five high-paid janitors in an NYC school — by high-paid, Gingrich means about $65,000, from a man who took $2 million in consultancies from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — Newt argues, you could get rid of three of them, and replace them with 20 poor children doing part-time chores, which would encourage them to come to school, learn responsibility, etc, etc. Yeah cos kids love chores. And the best way to lift families out of poverty is to employ the children first. Who all just love chores. And can be ably co-ordinated by two adults. And will not raise public liability issues by frying themselves on bad wiring, heating systems, etc.

God, where to stop? Gingrich was lucky in a way that the topic had been raised by Fox presenter Juan Williams (ex-NPR), in order to quiz on race-baiting — Gingrich had raised all this by saying that he was going to go to the NAACP and tell them this “to help them out” — in an era of a president who “created more food stamps than pay cheques”. The whole shtick is pure dog-whistling for a southern crowd (though there is every chance that Georgia-raised Newt believes it all), but Gingrich managed to turn it around for the Fox audience saying that it was politically correctness “and I will keep on telling people how to get a job, get a better job, own the job”. Applause. Standing ovation.

Gingrich on points, but a win also for Ron Paul, though many will see it as a loss. Repeated questioning on foreign policy had Paul enunciating an entirely moderate line — that bin Laden should have been arrested (“they arrested Eichmann”), that there should be a “golden rule” in international law, and that if you keep bombing people,they get murderously angry at you. These all elicited booing from the audience — and Paul, getting older and more tired these days, wasn’t as focused as he could have been — but it pushed the GOP to a sort of crisis. Everyone else sounded pretty literally fascist — defend the constitution through the NDAA, kill our enemies anywhere*.

The sight of someone saying this stuff from a Republican platform is driving them mad — indeed, today Bill Kristol called for Paul to be expelled from the party. Paul couldn’t be happier. Asked if he thought that the campaign had got too negative, he responded that the only problem with his Santorum ad was that he couldn’t get all the dirt in. I don’t share the leftish enthusiasm for Paul in many quarters, but he runs 40,000 volts through events like these, and is unflinchingly direct.

Will it be enough for Gingrich? Probably not. He is still behind by 5-10 points. Were he the only “conservative”, this would be the ultimate showdown. Given the shakiness of state-level polling, an upset is still possible. But it is likely that all this debate has done is to show the GOP just how shaky their candidate is. And to the Democrats as well.

*Santorum also opposes the NDAA.

Peter Fray

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