Live Blogging the South Carolina Debate

It’s 9 p.m. and we are on.

Note that with only five candidate, there will be time for more extended answers (and the rules are allowing answers to go as long as 1:30 minutes).

I laid out most of my analysis earlier today, but I think it will be interesting to see how far Perry, Santorum and Gingrich go in attacking Romney, and whether Romney is going to respond to direct attacks, or is going to try to stay above the fray.

In some respects, Romney has the easier job tonight.  He simply needs to stay calm, not get ruffled, and let the criticisms flow off his back. He’s a duck.  Quack-Quack.

Egged on by Moderator Brett, both Newt and Rick waste no time in attacking Mitt.  First it is his jobs record, and now Rick goes after the income tax issue.  This ought to be easy for Mitt to answer:  he should say “Yes, I’ll release them.”

Instead Mitt touts saving a steel mill in Indiana.  As for South Carolina losing steel milss  – he blames it on China’s unfair trade practices.

Evans (WSJ) – Is Huntsman right about negative advertisement?  Paul: No.  Not if you are pointing out someone record – he wishes he had more time to hurl more charges at Santorum.  Santorum is surprisingly frank about votes he wishes he had back (NCLB), or that he made in order to satisfy his constituents (against right-to-work laws).

9:21 – Santorum tries to turn a SuperPac ad against Mitt Romney by asking whether he would allow felons to vote.  This is actually a pretty effective exchange for Santorum and its the type of needling that has, in the past, flustered Romney. Very timely reference to Martin Luther King Day.

I have to think no one is going to do well here trying to distance himself from SuperPac ads.


Well the tone has been set: it’s pick on Mitt night.  It’s always a fine line one walks in both trying to attack an opponent and yet not appearing too nasty.  On the other hand, this is likely the last stop for one or two of the Perry/Gingrich/Santorum trio.  I don’t think they can afford to sit back as in previous debates and let one of the other two do their dirty work for them.

Jon Huntsman is getting more air time tonight since he left the race than when he was in it.  (Did you hear Perry grunt in approval when Huntsman’s weather vane quote describing Romney was read?)    Give Romney credit – he’s trying to stay positive, and keep the focus on Obama.

9:33 Juan Williams’ question regarding voting rights simply gives Perry a chance to throw some red meat to the South Carolina voters.  Not a good use of Juan’s time.

9:27  At least once a debate, Newt encapsulates an issue in a simple, direct and entertaining manner – 99 months is an associate degree!  If only debates determined election outcomes, Newt would be far ahead.

Is it me, or did someone tell Mitt to talk directly into the camera this time around?   It’s as if he thinks he alone on the stage – and maybe that’s the point.

9:41  Give Paul credit – he knows what he believes, doesn’t back down – but is also skilled at making his issue stances seem almost reasonable no matter what your view.  His answer on cutting the military by bringing troops home and building more bases domestically is deceptively appealing…I really wonder if we are going to see a surge of support him right at the end.  On the other hand, his positions are so wildly unrealistic (we should return taxes to zero!) that you wonder how any supports him.  And yet the Paulistas love him.

9:46  Wow, this is a horrible answer to a simple question: will you release your taxes?  This is the Mitt from the old days – equivocating, non-answer answers.  Did he say he was going to release his taxes? I still don’t know….

Juan William’s two questions tonight are both really aimed at positioning for the general election and not especially pertinent to South Carolina.

Williams’ question regarding black unemployment is something Santorum is going to hit out of the park, because he’s been proselytizing on the issue for the entire campaign.

Williams’ question on racial disparity in drug arrests and sentences is another one that Paul has ranted….er…..discussed many many times before.  I’m not sure why Williams is offering up these relatively tame questions.  Unless Williams follow up by asking about the newsletters!

Williams persists.  Another question with a racial angle.  doesn’t Newt realize how offensive his “lack of work ethic” question is, especially to minorities. Turns out, Newt’s daughter was  a janitor.

Juan keeps digging – I’m not sure whether to give him credit for pursuing this angle or not.   Newt is taking charge of this debate here – You Go Newt!


Ok, that was Newt moment.  Question – how big a moment?  Is it a debate-winning moment?  If so, does it translate into votes?  If so, how much?

On to foreign policy.  Paul is always entertaining here. He can get really cranky.  Hmmm….this is not even vintage crankiness. He’s meandering a bit here.  wonder how the audience will react to this.  This is the type of answer that his supporters love, but which makes others cringe.  Paul is trying to make a fine point here, but I don’t think the distinction between capturing and assassinating is working.

And it leaves it wide open for Gingrich to make the obvious distinction between a political dissident and a terrorist.  Not Paul’s best moment.

Is it possible that Paul’s candidacy is sinking before his eyes?  I can’t believe this is helping his cause in South Carolina, especially when Newt channels his inner Andy Jackson. He suddenly looks old, not cool.

Santorum seems a bit off his game tonight – the answers aren’t flowing.

A question about the details of Turkey to Perry.  This is when we all hold our breath.  But he pivots to the foreign aid question to start.  Abolishing foreign aid is always a crowd pleaser, particularly since most people overstate how much aid we actually send out.

Boy, there are a lot of red meat moments tonight, aren’t there?  Toto, we aren’t in New Hampshire anymore.

Again, I just don’t think there’s much upside for basically arguing that the Taliban just want to be left alone, which is essentially what Paul argues.

Romney gets booed simply for saying he would have signed a bill that Obama signed – the military appropriations bill – but I think they are missing Romney’s point here.  He’s supporting the detainee provisions.

Again, familiar terrain for Paul – this is red meat for libertarians – but he almost sounds a bit too shrill in making the point.  I’m wondering if his brand of libertarianism plays as well in S.C. as it did in New Hampshire.   I think he’ll get more support focusing on spending issues, not civil libertarian ones.

On to housing….sometimes Perry’s simplistic answers are actually pretty good, as was this one basically laying some of the blame on the housing crisis on government interference.

Mitt is having his usual debate night performance: solid, a few applause lines, occasionally wonkinesh – nothing objectionable, but nothing particularly memorable either.  On the plus side, he rarely makes mistakes.  Quack, Quack!

The candidates are so enamored with their own plans that they are forgetting to attack their opponents.  Romney may yet escape unscathed if this keeps up.

Ah, I can count on Angry Rick  – he attacks both Newt and Mitt!  Good exchange here between Rick and Newt.  Policy oriented, clear distinctions on approaches to rescuing entitlements and cutting deficits.

Romney:  “Rick is right”?  Didn’t Rick just attack Romney for being too conservative by not means testing entitlements?  Never mind.


Assessments?  One thing to keep in mind that at some point voters begin to lock in their opinions, and support levels become less volatile.  I don’t know if we are quite there yet – the most recent polls I saw out of SC indicated that 30% of voters were still undecided.  But I wonder just how much these debate can move opinion at this stage of the election process.  On the other hand, this is the 17th debate I’ve watched, so maybe it is just me….

Ah, a gun question.  Romney shot varmints, remember.

Hey, Juan asks about Mitt’s recent varmint history!   Mitt can’t tell the difference between a moose and an elk.  (Hint: Rocky hangs out with the moose.)  Again, Mitt often seems less than authentic when it comes his personal narrative.

Once again Rick goes after Uncle Ron.  He has to be reading the polls as suggesting Paul is stealing his voters.   Rick seems to understand better than anyone on this stage that it’s not enough to push your own issues – you have to attack your opponents.

Ah, finally someone finally gets to the Pelosi/Gingrich unholy alliance – and Gingrich uses this to get back to Romney and the Superads.  Again, it seems like Newt is scoring points on this. But now Romney has his turn – he has his dander up, and does a nice job negating some of Newt’s thunder on this.  Let’s call this a draw.

By the way, Romney just called it “his superpac” – slip of the tongue, no doubt.  His larger point, however, is to embrace my argument regarding the futility of trying to regulate campaign spending.

Does border control matter as much to voters in South Carolina as it does to Rick Perry?

And Newt ends it with a crowd-pleasing attack on No Child Left Behind.

And that’s it – it’s all over except for the spin.  And we do it one more time on Thursday.  Can’t wait…..


I thought Gingrich had the best moments, but his direct exchange with Romney on Bain, and on Superpacs, were essentially draws.  I thought his exchange with Santorumon entitlement reform was substantively meaty and informative.  On the whole, a strong night for Newt.

Santorum was not as smooth, but he was the most aggressive, with pointed attacks on Paul and Romney.  Will that help him at this stage?  I’m not sure, but some of his best points came on social issues which really are not at the center of this debate.

Paul look cranky and, at times tired – not to the degree that it would cost him support of the Paulistas, but I don’t think he was pulling in votes based on this performance.

Romney was Romney – strong on policy, with an occasional slip into wonkiness, steady overall but with that lingering sense that he was too politic by half.  This came out especially in his waffling on the tax issue, and his gun defense.

Big question to me is whether Newt’s stirring defense of his work ethic statements  – which got a standing ovation here – will play as well on the stump.

Perry?  Solid, with many applause lines – but I still think he was mostly an afterthought.  He is trying to portray himself as the outsider,  but it just doesn’t seem to be translating into polling support.

Ok, that’s it from here.  It will be interesting to see how the media frames this, particularly in light of the growing narrative that Romney is on the brink of closing this out (polling data notwithstandings).  I’ll be on tomorrow with a postmortem of the reaction.  But for now, it’s time to pour a scotch, sit back, and watch the exhausted candidates work the spin room.

Great participation tonight – thanks to all.  We do it all again on Thursday!






  1. Gotta say… I’m a conservative who wishes that South Carolinians weren’t so enthusiastic about applauding their “war with the federal government.” There’s a long, long history there.

  2. The immigration answer – seemed pretty balanced in tone to me, hitting good notes. Except, the Dream Act issue – wouldn’t that be considered to be rewarding the ones who are working towards that ‘American Dream’ he mentioned at the beginning of his response?

  3. Right, Tarsi, and as Prof Dickinson says this is issue is going to flower in the general. Note Rubio’s “war with Univision”.

  4. Gingrich….education, but class issues on this….are policy-wise, concerning? And Obama put people on food stamps? Don’t you have to apply? And does he know that the money didn’t create jobs/save jobs? Still – he sounds good.

  5. Tarsi – I think this is a winning issue for Newt, at this time, for this primary audience. Generally speaking, food stamps are used an indicator of the state of the economy. People apply when they don’t have the income to buy food – at least that’s going to be the angle Newt is trying to play up here.

  6. Gingerich’s comments were more than “concerning” they were, IMO, offensive.

    Going back, Romney’s answer on release of tax returns was really lame, for sure.

  7. Why is 0% income tax “wildly unrealistic”? It would cut less than $1 trillion in revenue. Ron has already proposed a first year budget cut of $1 trillion.

  8. Paul sounded like he was gasping for air at the end of that….30 seconds…..hah. His manta is noted though that’s for sure. Interesting how Gingrich’s criticism of Paul was boo’ed?

  9. Jeff – You are right. I shouldn’t have said that without offering additional context. Let me amend that to say many people would think it is wildly unrealistic. You are right to call me on it.

  10. Agreed – Perry is doing well, but it’s basically boilerplate applause lines. I wonder if he needs to go deeper to really start attracting support.

  11. Oh come on, Obama, has stayed a mile away from gun issues.

    Romney was a bit rattled by hunting question.

  12. a SuperPAC control reference, who has control over them…..? Unless of course, you’re Huntsman now…?

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