Newt’s CNN Debate Win in South Carolina – Will It Be Enough?

Newt won his second South Carolina debate in a row.

Politico has Newt Gingrich seven points behind Romney among likely voters at 30%. After tonight’s debate, Gingrich may close that gap further. Romney floundered once again on the issue of his tax returns. He took a beating on both Romneycare and abortion. His confidence seems diminished.

Meanwhile Newt has this incredible way of segueing between attacks on Obama and attacks on Romney. Once again Newt is showing off his debating skills and his ability to sound reasonable while saying seriously crazy things all at the same time. His arrogance is galling but the crowd loves him.

I personally loved how Ron Paul took the issue of government healthcare and segued into military spending. He was the only one of the four who seemed to actually care that real people do actually depend on government benefits whether or not he believes in those programs.

Santorum did fine, but he didn’t rile up the crowd. He’s very good at sounding sincere. He has a certain maudlin folksiness to him that the GOP base enjoys. But they enjoy Newt more. Santorum rambles, Newt cuts right to the quick. Romney was on the defense almost all night, even in his pleas for Republican unity. Newt managed to call for unity while going on the offense.

This was a bad night for Romney and another win for Newt. Paul wasn’t at his best, but it doesn’t really matter. South Carolina is obviously not Paul territory. The real question is whether this and the last debate can propel Newt into fighting territory against Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has never looked so weak.

As Andrew Sullivan notes, “Every minute he speaks about this in this forum he loses votes.” Can Romney lose the electability race to Gingrich – a man who is on his third marriage, spent years lobbying for the housing industry just before the crash, and wracked up an absurd credit line at Tiffany’s?

It’s almost inconceivable.

But the Bain Capital record isn’t going anywhere. There’s something fishy about these tax returns and Romney’s inability to just release them to the public. Something is rotten.

The difference between Romney and Gingrich is that we’re all pretty sure we know the details of Gingrich’s dirty laundry by now. Even his ex-wife’s tell-all interview isn’t going to shine any new light on the former speaker.

Romney, on the other hand, remains something of a closed book. I bet that makes some voters nervous.

The devil you know can be a comfortable vote, and at this point I think a lot of conservatives are taking a second look at Gingrich whose warts they’ve basically come to terms with. His response to the accusations leveled at him by his ex-wife on ABC had the audience in a standing ovation, effectively turning a damning revelation into just another reason to go after the mainstream media.

One has to admire Gingrich’s tenacity at moments like these even if 90% of what he says is absolute garbage.

We know who Newt Gingrich is – but what lies beneath Romney’s slick exterior? Republicans can’t be certain. Will it give them pause this Saturday in South Carolina?

Update. Josh Marshall describes Gingrich’s performance and especially his broadside against debate moderator John King quite well:

It all started (and in a sense ended) with Newt’s ferocious broadside against John King for raising the “open marriage” story. The whole thing was a put-up job in reality. But for his intended audience, it was a masterstroke. And it was classic Newt. Take the mammoth offensive whether you have a leg to stand on or not and just go with it. It turned the whole thing into an outrage drama against the “mainstream media.” The cynicism of Newt’s tirade was on display post-debate when he complimented King for doing a great job moderating the debate. But again, doesn’t matter. He nailed it. That set the tone for the debate, virtually ensured that no one would touch the issue for the next two hours and instantly drew off all the Newt-tension hovering over the debate.

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.