Live Blogging the South Carolina debate

8:00  Did you see the CNN opening?  It was what you’d see for a playoff game…..”Under the Lights on the Frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…..”

Boy, the audience is really into this. It IS a sporting event.

By the way, the moderate John King used to be a local Massachusetts reporter, and remains a big Boston sports fan.

Let’s see if any of the candidates are singing…yep.  Right on cue.  Wait – Rick and Mitt are singing, but Paul and Newt are not.  How will that play with South Carolina voters?  And is that a virtual flag?  Maybe Newt and Ron don’t think that counts.

The other good point about King – he talks really really really fast.  So he’ll get questions out.

Nice intro by Rick – gets the Iowa thing right out front.

It’s no coincidence that Mitt mentions his longtime marriage and kids!  He ooozes sincerity!  Same for Rick.

Meanwhile, Ron shamelessly plugs his military service in a strong military service state.

King wastes no time getting the big story out.  The crowd is hushed.

Careful Newt…too strident….. mix in some contrition, won’t you?  I’m not sure this is how to address this – am I wrong?  The crowd seems to like it.  Clearly Newt is trying to create the  backlash against the liberal media.  And there it is – the elite media!  Once again Gingrich tries to turn this into a question about the media.

Looks like everyone is closing ranks behind Newt, although Paul does give a shout out to his wife.

Jeff – I think you may be right.  A winner for Newt.  Does this defuse the issue for the remaining two days – and for the campaign?  Note that the full interview has yet to air.

8:16 – This is where Paul is pretty good – discussing job creation in the context of the business cycle.  Newt is always quick to turn a jobs question into a specific issue related to South Carolina’s concerns.

I’m not sure, based on polling data, that Bain Capital is a winner here, but I guess Newt has to answer the question asked.  Mitt is smart to answer the previous question.

Crony capitalism is really the key Republican talking point of the campaign – I’m surprised it hasn’t come up before.  Nice answer by Mitt, but I’m surprised he is sticking to his attack on Obama.  Unless he has secret polling data, I think he has to respond to attacks from Newt. As of right now, he’s losing (at least in the polls.)

King is asking good questions so far.  Santorum is getting antsy over there….

8:23 – Santorum is going to make his pitch to lower-income workers. But he seems strangely subdued…is it me, or are his eyes shifting a bit too much?

8:27 Nice touch couching the jobs question in terms of returning veterans.  Paul’s post- World War II budget cutting figure is not very useful, since the cut in budget reflected the end of the war!

Santorum is basically couching his answer in terms of the political payoff in South Carolina. Cutting the military doesn’t play well down there.

Newt is determined to one up Paul on his World War II history – it was all about tax cuts.  Newt can’t resist playing the history professor.

8:33 King does a nice job of rescuing us from a softball audience question.  It makes Mitt lay out his own plan as opposed to simply railing against Obamacare.  Newt one ups Mitt by turning it into a job question.

Rick is not going to play attaboy.  And that’s the right play – he has to go on the offensive tonight.  But he’s doing Newt’s work too.  This is the strongest sustained attack on Romneycare anyone has given so far.

But, wait!  There’s more!  Newt is for individual mandate!  Rick is making his last-ditch pitch, and it’s a good one.  “Footsies with the Left’!  Ouch. Nicely done Rick.

There’s not alot Mitt can do here – if he touts the success of Romneycare, he sets himself up as serving as the model for Obamacare.  This isn’t helping Mitt, and Rick won’t let go.  You go Rick!  Again, Newt is sitting back and watching this with a smile.

Newt – I’ll debate the President without a teleprompter.  Still, he doesn’t answer Rick’s charge. Rick is scoring points, but he’s very angry doing this.  Newt finally owns up, but I’m not sure he’s going to defuse the issue entirely.  I wonder what else Rick has up his sleeve?  How about immigration?

So far Paul is having a strong debate because he’s focusing on spending issues, his strong suit.


Wow, nice touch by Newt to release his tax returns during the debate – an obvious opening to go after Mitt on this issue.  I have to think Mitt will be prepared. He’d better be!

Spirited exchanges so far, but that opening riposte by Newt against King still seems to me to be the lead. Everyone looks on their game, the exchanges are spirited.  I don’t think Mitt is doing enough to change the polling trend lines, and the big issues that could hurt him, including taxes, haven’t even been broached.

Rick has come to this debate loaded for bear – all he needs to say here is that he’s finished ahead of Gingrich in two races so far.  And he does – and he does it by reminding voters of Newt’s mercurial grandiosity.  A great answer by Rick. Let’s see how Newt responds.  He touts his record building the Republican majority, but you wait – Rick is going to say, then what happened Newt?

And, right on cue!  Rick says it’s a problem of execution, not grandiose ideas.  Again, Rick is really scoring points.  But he’s also really really angry…is he too far over the top?

This gives Mitt a nice opening to criticize Newt and Rick as political insiders.  (What is Newt laughing about?)  Nice little touch to mention Reagan’s diary.

Not a bad response by Newt, but a better response by Romney.  Mitt is having a good debate so far……Newt, after his opening salvo, has not had his best night.

Once again, Mitt’s tax answer isn’t really the best – he might release his older tax returns? Then he tries to switch the subject.  It isn’t obvious that Mitt is honest with his taxes – that’s the point of releasing them.

Boy, King has also come prepared. He throws Mitt’s father back at him!  Wow, Mitt is blowing what has been a stellar performance tonight!  Just say yes, for gosh sakes! Boy, I’m not sure this poor little Mitt character he is trotting out is going to work.  I see Newt’s next commercial writing itself.

9:08 How to stem the flow of overseas jobs – that is, why is Apple in China?

I love it when Paul gives us an economic lecture, rather than taking the easy route.  Of course, it’s not clear how well this sells in South Carolina, even if its true….Eventually, he scores a political point (right to work), but its lost in this long excursion into trade policy, and who benefits, etc.

9:13.  Stop OnLine Piracy (SOPA) question.  For or against?  This is the type of question that Newt can riff on. He’s for freedom!  Freeeeeeedoooommmmm!  (Frankly, I’m not sure this is a hot issue for most South Carolina voters.  Mitt attaboys Newt.  So does Ron.  Rick – as he has done all night – tries to stake out a slighly different position, but it’s not clear to me that his speech in favor of property rights really won over anyone.  A rather esoteric topic to debate live.

BREAK TWO – 9:17.

I thought Mitt gave away some of his advantage with his inability to give a simple, believable answer to the tax question.  How hard can it be?  His answer is going to on youtube and in a Newt ad 10 minutes after this debate is over.  Having said that, no one is really running away with this.  Rick came clearly ready to score points, and he has done his homework.  But he’s angry again.  Still, I think he’s probably “winning” if there is such a thing.  Paul has been good too and I’m sure his base is pleased, but I’m just not convinced he has much upside in South Carolina.

9:24 – What would you do differently?  Someone should tell Mitt that another 25 votes wouldn’t have given him victory in Iowa.  Newt’s answer wasn’t necessarily a sellling point – he’s a big idea guy – because that’s precisely what Rick has been criticizing him for.  Nice answer by Rick.  Same for Paul – but he needed to end by saying “and that message is LIBERTY!”

Finally, an immigration question.  Newt’s soft point. Look for Mitt to say he’s not for amnesty, and Newt is.  Newt does the right thing – he talks about all the tough sanctions he would impose first, before he gets to the “deporting grandma” .  It’s not a winner in South Carolina, but it is what it is, and it may help him in Florida and Nevada with some groups.

Look for Rick to unload on both Newt and Mitt on this issue.  Rick is the son of an immigrant – but a legal immigrant!  Yep, he unloads (Mitt changed his position…as he often does….ouch!)

Rick has come to this debate with a seriousness of purpose – maybe too serious.  I think Newt is playing the long game here – but in the short run South Carolina is voting in two days.  Again, not his best issue.

You have to admire Paul – and this is part of his appeal – he really doesn’t give a darn sometimes about political posturing if it conflicts with his principles.  But sometimes his principled positions make no sense.  You can’t expect the military to take on border control.

Abortion issue – not a big issue in a job-based election.  But if it resonates anywhere, it does here at least with part of the social conservative electorate. But I don’t think Newt really wants to push this issue.  His nitpicking of Mitt’s stance on this issue seems designed solely to score political points.

Rick isn’t going to go quietly.  He again attacks both Newt and Mitt on this issue.  Too bad we didn’t see this Rick much much earlier in the campaign.  Still, this isn’t a real winning issue.

Wow, Shades of Owen!  The crowd demands that Paul be allowed to speak. (By the way, does anyone else wish King would sit down?)  He does, but it’s not his best bit – he says it’s about morality, not law – but he doesn’t say what the morality is.   Rick goes on the attack comparing Paul to Harry Reid.  Paul’s getting caught up a bit here in his own logic – now he says it not morality, it’s a state’s right issue.  Again, it could have been said a lot more easily.

Break Three (I think)

Hard to score this one so far…..but if Newt ends up holding on to take S.C., what will the pundits say about the old saw that no Republican has won the nomination without winning South Carolina?  Does it mean the saw is now wrong? Or do they stick to their story and it means Newt is the nominee?

9:52.  King must be reading my blog posting.  Good final question from King.

Paul’s “Braveheart” moment – liberty isn’t a local issue.  and to be free, we must cut spending.

Gingrich – He’s going to play the electability card.  Big change requires a Big Guy – he’s make a strong case for why Obama must go, but not a very good case for why he’s the man to do it.

Romney – Who is he looking at, by the way.  A return to first principles.  Restore, not transform – that’s what he will do.  A rousing final speech. Did it close the deal?

Santorum – We need a “conviction conservative”.   Never mind a soaring finale – Rick will use his last breath to attack Newt and Mitt.   I give him an “A” for effort tonight. He left it all in the debate hall – it will take a Bachmann miracle for him to pull this out, but I think he helped his cause.  But the bigger question is: who did he hurt more?

Ok, that’s it.  Keep in mind that in part, the impact of this debate will be a function of how the media slices and dices it.

My initial response:

Santorum scored repeatedly all night in maybe his most forceful performance of the campaign.  I thought, like Owen, that he did more damage to Newt, because his comments that Newt was a big thinker who was poor on execution plays right into the line Romney has been pushing in his own ads.  The problem is Rick is too far behind to pull this out, so by hurting Newt he helps Romney, at least a bit.

But Romney had his own gaffe – the tax issue is just going to be replayed endlessly the next two days.  So does that offset anything he gained from Rick?

Finally, this was not Newt’s best performance, but he didn’t make any major gaffes, and I think he probably defused the Marianne issue, although her full interview is still to run.

A couple of factors that may be definitive here: how does the media play this in terms of highlighting soundbites?  What if Gingrich’s opening attack on King is the lead story?  What if Romney’s tax weaseling leads?  Part of Santorum’s problem is that even if he “won” the debate, the media has already written him off, so he doesn’t necessarily get the boost he deserves.

As I listen to the first media take, they are focusing on Gingrich’s opening defense and Romney’s tax – no mention of Santorum.  If the rest of the media plays it this way, Newt might skate.  The media, in their usual navel gazing way, think the media’s right to ask the Marianne question is the real issue here.  Never underestimate the media’s belief that debates are about them, and not the candidates.

There’s one other factor to consider here – as I’ve been working through some of the cross-tabs of recent polls, it is clear that Paul draws a good chunk of support from voters who otherwise would back Romney.   I think Paul’s relatively strong performance tonight doesn’t help Romney.

Bottom line: based on what I saw tonight, and how the media is spinning this, I think Gingrich did enough to hold serve and, given the recent trends in the polling, I think he’s going to hold on to win here.  But…and this is a big but….we can’t be sure what will come out in the next 48 hours.  Pending some weird surprise….I think Newt held on enough tonight to clinch the deal.  But I’m willing to be persuaded that I’m wrong!

I’ll be on tomorrow with the post-debate postmortem….thanks again for all your participation!  Great comments tonight.  You’ve all earned a scotch. Pour a single malt, sit back, and toast this wonderful American experiment that we call democracy.

Addendum (10:45): By the way, Newt paid nearly $1 million in federal taxes last year, putting him over 30% tax rate.  I have to think this is going to be an issue that is going to hurt Mitt – why he won’t simply address this issue is beyond me.  All I can think is that Mitt’s accountants are still scouring the tax returns to see to if there are anything that can be used to hurt him.  This one issue may cost him South Carolina … and if he loses here, what’s next?




  1. Smacking CNN will clearly play well among South Carolina republicans, no? Seemed like he pretty much hit that one out of the park, I’d say–

  2. I think Newt took advantage of the fact that the question was the first one; Republicans will definitely agree with his stance on that. If it had been dropped in later in the debate, I suspect his response would have been more contrite.

  3. The cameo of Nikki Haley reminds me she stuck her neck out for Romney and could be embarrassed by a Gingerinch win.

  4. @rstrange – Yeah, that was a surprise endorsement given how skeptical the Tea Partiers are of Romney. I think she got caught up in the media inevitability mantra.

  5. Paul is getting absolutely no airtime tonight. This is a guy who is polling at 15% nationally and as one of only 4 candidates he is practically invisible. Is this calculated by CNN or just a factor of the other 3 attacking each other so much? If I’m his campaign manager then I’m fuming mad right now.

  6. @Owen. I have to thnk it’s because of the perception that he’s hit his ceiling of 15% in South Carolina. Not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation.

  7. I think John King crossed the line from moderation to advocacy in his set up of the SOPA question. It was satisfying to see him get smacked down a bit.

  8. I can’t imagine that, in this election, Paul’s outright criticism of the Republican Party on the SOPA issue will truly help him get to the next level. What is it going to buy him in South Carolina?

  9. @Sam – well, this gets to the core issue of his campaign: what does he want? I’m increasingly viewing his candidacy as a stalking horse for his son.

  10. Was Paul saying the military should do border patrol or just that without fighting wars overseas the US would have more resources for other things, which seems to be his constant refrain?

  11. @Jesse – Perhaps your more generous interpretation is correct. but he could have made that more clear.

  12. Paul: “abortion is a medical issue” and then he goes on to talk about morality…which is it medical or moral?

  13. It seems to me that part of the appeal of Ron Paul is this kind of puttering around, speaking too fast, talking himself in circles; at least to his Paulites, that is. Yet, while those die hard supporters appreciate the innocence of his manner of speech, that same manner of speech prevents him from expanding his level of support beyond those levels. Of course his political stances, which only further reinforces the wildcat nature of his manner of speech, also serve as a fair limit on that level of support.

  14. Matt–do you think Romney was a bit over the top on that closing? Or does that play? Fire and brimstone…

  15. Sam – I think your characterization of Paul is exactly right. He’s the antipolitician that we all say we want. But his policy positions…..

  16. @Jeff – It’s not so much that he’s over the top – it’s that he seems so insincere doing it. I just think it doesn’t sound convincing when it comes out of his mouth the way it did, say, when Reagan spoke about that shining city on the hill. With Romney, it always seems like his pronouncements have all been poll tested first.

  17. It seems like Santorum just gave SC to Romney with his strong performance tonight. He should win back 4-5% from Gingrich and convince a considerable number of the Perry people to come to him. Unfortunately for social conservatives, Romney won’t lose much support if any and hold on to the state.

  18. Yes, Matt, that’s right–it is the insincerity. It just doesn’t feel/sound right. It makes you cringe a little. Or want to turn away.

  19. Owen – keep in mind that Romney may have lost some support with his evasive tax answer. Much depends, I think, in how the candidates play the debate during the next 48 hours.

  20. Sam, I agree. And it doesn’t seem like he’s playing to win like the other guys. I don’t know if that’s his goal, but that’s how it comes across. Paul seems to muddle his message most often because the first thing he says isn’t “I want to beat Obama.” He seems less interested in broadening his support than just highlighting that he’s being ignored and saying that he’s been right all along.

  21. I can’t understand Romney’s evasiveness on taxes, considering how polished and poll-tested the rest of his performance is. It can’t be a winning issue. He can’t convince anyone he’s just like them, and any negative press about his tax return would go away faster than negative ads and press about his continued failure to release it. He’s making it a negative issue for him from now until April 15th. Anyone have an idea on how this could be good for him?

  22. @Jesse – I also think Paul is genuinely interested in proselytizing for the libertarian cause. Interestingly, for someone who seems apolitical, his advertising is consistently the most negative and attack oriented of all the candidates – especially his mailers….

  23. Jeff- That’s why I think he’s a weaker candidate in the end than the talking heads believe.

  24. @Jesse – The audience booed his answer! Why he wasn’t ready for this is beyond me. Even if you are going to wait until April, you have to have a better explanation than that! I’m wondering if he’s simply being cautious in trying to vet all his past returns for potential landmines. Or maybe he just doesn’t think it helps to show people just how wealthy he is.

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