(Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed)
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – The five GOP candidates left standing came out swinging Monday night, hoping to land big blows just days before Saturday’s South Carolina primary. With the clock ticking, challengers Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are desperately trying to position themselves ahead of the other to be the “anyone but Romney” candidate.
Monday’s debate was the first since former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announced his decision to exit the race in a hasty fashion on Monday and formally in a mid-morning press conference. His decision even surprised the Romney camp who was caught unprepared for Huntsman’s endorsement.
“Huntsman said he wanted to endorse a business person and Gov. Romney has proved to be a job creator,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told The Christian Post. “Gov. Romney has shown results in both the private and public sector and he will show the same results when he’s our next president.”
Gingrich, who has been pounding Romney on his record when he led the venture capital firm Bain Capital, continued his assault on the Massachusetts governor, claiming he specialized in buying companies and then laying off employees or driving them into bankruptcy – a charge Romney adamantly denied.
He also hit the former Massachusetts governor again, saying he could not control the super PACs that have continued to attack Gingrich with the former speaker asking how much influence Romney could have if elected president.
But Gingrich’s best moment of the debate came when he fired back at moderator Juan Williams for suggesting some of his earlier statements – such as the high propensity of blacks on food stamps was intended to disparage those who are less fortunate.
“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,” said Gingrich. “Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
What the debate in Myrtle Beach was short on was any in-depth discussion of social issues. Romney restated his support for traditional marriage, hoping to score points in the conservative state.
However, former Congressman Gresham Barrett believes Santorum holds the high ground on social platforms. “Personally, I think Rick [Santorum] is doing extremely well in South Carolina despite the fact he’s had a lot of negative ads thrown at him. “
Barrett also expressed his excitement the recent endorsement of Santorum by the nation’s leading conservative Christian leaders, saying the news has already helped him in the northern portion of the state.
“It’s huge. Over 70 percent of the residents of my former congressional district attend church on a regular basis and they’re going to respond favorably to the news of national evangelical leaders endorsing Santorum.”
A group of some 150 evangelical and conservative Christian leaders that includes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Family Talk announced on Saturday that Santorum won the support of a supermajority.
On Monday, moderator Williams questioned Santorum on his position on gun rights based on the former senator’s vote of trigger locks and other bills that gun owner deplore.
Santorum countered by saying he had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Romney’s jab at Santorum for being the “big hunter,” also drew a sarcastic laugh from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Although Perry finds himself in the mid-single digits in recent polls, he too went after Romney by challenging him to release his income tax returns as he and Gingrich are doing.
"Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money. ... We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now."
“Like former President George Bush and others, I am inclined to release my returns in April – we’ll consider doing so when the time comes,” Romney said in an uncomfortable fashion.
However, Perry’s ease and aggressiveness may be too little too late.
“Good things often happen when you have nothing to lose,” said Christine O’Donnell, a North Carolina native who was backing Perry but is now looking for another candidate. “I wish the country could have gotten to know the real Rick Perry but I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”
Besides the personal jabs each candidate was trying to get in, the issue of lower taxes was where they sought to draw distinctions between themselves.
Santorum has proposed a maximum tax rate of 28 percent, compared to Romney’s 25 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, not wanting to be outdone, said he thought “zero” was a better option.
Paul, who has gained a reputation as standing apart from the group, challenged the debate’s moderators by trying to define the difference between defense and military spending. Paul proudly claimed he was the only candidate left in the race who would make substantial changes to the military.
The candidates will take their campaigns inward for the next couple of days before heading back down to Charleston for the CNN debate on Thursday.