Mitt Romney shows cracks during GOP debate under heavy fire from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich

Published: Monday, Jan. 16 2012 11:23 p.m. MST

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, second left, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, second right, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, talk at the end of the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday, Jan. 16, 2012.

Associated Press

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Mitt Romney received heavy fire from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich during the Republican presidential debate Monday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that Fox News and the Wall Street Journal sponsored.

"The attacks were on show Monday night during a debate in which Mr. Romney's rivals questioned his record of job creation as the head of a private-equity firm and called on the former Massachusetts governor to release his tax returns to avoid any surprise revelations in a general-election fight with President Barack Obama," the Wall Street Journal reported.

"The front-runner in South Carolina and nationally, Romney faced attacks on his business record, his views on voting rights and his history of changing political positions — all within the first hour of the event," Alexander Burns wrote for Politico.

With the Republican presidential race at a crucial point — popular opinion holds that a third straight win by Romney in the South Carolina primary on Saturday would effectively end the race — Santorum and Gingrich each employed different tactics to try and yank Romney down a notch.

New York Magazine penned a detailed account of a verbal brawl between Santorum and Romney less than 15 minutes into the debate when the former Pennsylvania senator pounded Romney about whether the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future is running ads that misrepresent Santorum's position on whether felons should be allowed to vote. Santorum employed something of a blunt-force approach, aggressively attempting to prevent Romney from straying off-topic.

"Santorum won the exchange," Brett Smiley wrote for New York Magazine. "He also put super PACs at the forefront and forced Romney, on a big stage, to either dismiss or take ownership of the super PAC ad that by law is supposed to exist separately from the candidate. Whether they do, who knows, but as long as super PACs pour millions into harsh campaigns, this kind of conversation will happen again."

Gingrich echoed Santorum in repeatedly returning to the perceived inaccuracy of Restore Our Future PAC's ads. But unlike Santorum's naked aggression, the former House speaker took a more cerebral approach and employed a professorial tact to exert control over his exchanges with fellow candidates and debate moderators.

In fact, the loudest ovation of the night went to Gingrich when he strongly rebuffed Fox News commentator Juan Williams' assertion that Gingrich had offended the African-American community by previously suggesting poor students should do light janitorial work at their schools in order to earn some money.

The most electric portion of their exchange:

WILLIAMS: "Can't you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?"

GINGRICH: "No. I don't see that."

WILLIAMS: "I have to tell you my Twitter account has been inundated by all races, who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. … It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people."

GINGRICH: "Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know among the politically correct you are not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."

"After the debate, Fox News commentator Frank Luntz … was surprised at the crowd's reaction," Evan McMorris-Santoro wrote for Talking Points Memo. "He said it was the first time he'd ever seen a debate audience give a candidate a standing ovation during an ongoing debate."

Opinions varied about what the debate's net effect will be for Romney. Slate's David Weigel called the debate "the massacre in Myrtle Beach" and labeled Romney's performance "intelligence-insultingly bad," while Reuters instead reported that Romney "emerged largely unscathed from (the) South Carolina debate."

Ron Paul showed shades of his 2007 debate performances by stumbling over his polarizing libertarian views on foreign policy and national security issues. For example, he seemed somewhat disoriented while trying to justify his belief that Pres. Obama did not have the proper authority to green-light the covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden because the action occurred on Pakistani soil without any kind of diplomatic forewarning.

The Hill's Campaign blog summed up Paul's travails: "The crowd at the GOP debate in military-heavy South Carolina got rowdy during a discussion of foreign policy, booing Ron Paul heartily and whooping and cheering when the other candidates took a hard line on foreign involvement. … Paul was heavily criticized by his Republican opponents, who argued his foreign policy would put the country at harm."

Rick Perry synopsis, from the Houston Chronicle's Perry Presidential blog: "Perry is running far behind the others in the contest, but he showed no signs of throwing in the towel at Monday's debate. Indeed, he challenged Romney early and often, zeroing in on his foe's work at Bain. Perry, who has repeatedly called Bain 'vulture capitalists,' cited a South Carolina steel company that he said went bankrupt after Bain arrived on the scene.

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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