Palin Is Right - The Nomination Process Needs To Keep Going - Santorum Is Just Getting Warmed Up

Santorum goes on offense in SC debate, but too late? « Ed Morrissey

Last night, conservatives got everything they have wanted from the Republican presidential debates. Low-polling candidates finally have exited the stage, leaving just those who have significant support in the field. The debaters attacked the media, which is always a crowd pleaser. And finally, after months of waiting for a Not-Romney to go after Mitt’s version of health-care reform, one candidate made a sustained and substantive attack on RomneyCare.

But was it too late for Rick Santorum? It’s getting pretty close to it, but as I said last night on Twitter, he’s not going to leave the race without having made his pitch, and he made it against both Romney and Newt Gingrich last night. When asked by CNN’s John King about Gingrich’s suggestion that he leave the race, he reminded Gingrich that Santorum outperformed Gingrich in both of the previous states despite being at a money disadvantage, and unwinded that into an argument about Newt’s “grandiose” thinking and lack of a “cogent thought” about the election. While ripping Romney on health care, Santorum included Gingrich in the criticism for his long-time support of an individual mandate, arguing that neither man would provide enough of a contrast with Obama in a debate on health care. Gingrich responded with his “Lincoln-Douglas style debate” line, at which Santorum openly scoffed.

Santorum went after Gingrich on his claims as a reformer in the House as well. He ripped Gingrich for claiming to have transformed the House, bringing up the two-decades old House banking scandal and accusing Gingrich of not having the courage to expose it — which Santorum claimed to have done. Romney got in on the act by also accusing Gingrich of greatly exaggerating his connection to Ronald Reagan, noting that Gingrich only gets a single mention in Reagan’s published diaries, and a not-entirely-flattering one at that. (The reference comes on January 3, 1983, and it mentions a Gingrich idea to freeze spending, which would have killed Reagan’s military buildup.) Of course, it helps Romney to have Santorum go after Gingrich, which would explain why Romney seized on that opportunity.

Gingrich, for his part, started off with an explosive attack against John King his starting question about Marianne Gingrich’s interview on ABC. He got two standing ovations for his perfectly-delivered rant, and at the time, I tweeted that Newt had won the debate in the first five minutes. After that, though, Gingrich had an uneven performance. Santorum’s attack wounded Gingrich, but didn’t keep him from having a series of good moments throughout the debate and he finished strong.

Romney, however, had a second straight shaky performance. He also had good moments, but he didn’t respond well to Santorum’s attacks. The worst of his night came on his answers on his tax returns, which is particularly worrisome because he had the same exact problem in the last debate and obviously didn’t do anything to address his approach. Arguing that it’s legitimate to ask for tax returns but that he doesn’t want to make them public is a very curious hill on which to die, politically speaking, and his “maybe” to King’s question as to whether he’d follow his father’s precedent both looked and sounded bad. The sound you heard in the background, apart from the boos, was the sound of a hundred attack ads being cut at the same time. I can hear the voice-over now: Will you release your tax returns now?“Maybe.” Will you take care of the middle class and not just the rich? “Maybe.” Will you actually repeal ObamaCare? “Maybe.” Will you go to war against Iran at the first possible moment? “Maybe.” (That one would be from the Paul campaign, of course.)

Speaking of Paul, he had one of his better debates last night, likely because foreign policy never got mentioned. On two occasions, he had to demand time from King to answer questions offered to the other three candidates on stage — and both were on health care-related issues. Even though Paul kept trying to bring the war in Afghanistan into his answers, the avoidance of national security as a topic worked in his favor, and the crazy-uncle moments were greatly diminished. For once, Santorum didn’t bother much with Paul, and neither did anyone else on the stage.

Overall, Santorum won this debate, with Gingrich a close second. Santorum needed a win, but he also needed to derail both Romney and Gingrich. Santorum gave it his best shot, but I’m not sure it’s enough of a game changer in regard to Gingrich to generate a surprise finish in South Carolina. Gingrich, however, probably saved his momentum with his attack on the media in the beginning and did well enough afterward to maintain his current standing in the race. Romney has to worry about what a loss in South Carolina will mean for his campaign, perhaps for the first time, after this debate performance.