Rivals Batter Romney in Feisty South Carolina Debate

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  January 17, 2012 at 7:54 AM EST

Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich; photo by Charles Dharapa/Getty Images

Rick Santorum, left, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at Monday’s GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Photo by Charles Dharapa/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The five Republican presidential candidates met in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday night for what became a feisty forum showcasing four hopefuls trying to dent Mitt Romney’s front-runner armor.

The former Massachusetts governor struggled with several answers, ultimately saying he’d release his tax returns in April and detailing his hunting exploits. His rivals attempted to land punches, aided at times by a booing audience, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul was able to use his increased speaking time on the stage to outline his policy viewpoints on defense spending and the drug trade.

The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker frame the evening as Romney being thrown “off balance.”

Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, meanwhile, write that Romney’s fellow competitors “failed to goad him into losing his composure or making any major mistakes, and [Romney] devoted nearly as much attention to President Obama as he did to the candidates on stage with him.”

The overall nasty tone isn’t a huge surprise given this week could mean game, set, match for the non-Romney candidates. And after all, Myrtle Beach was the scene of that uncomfortably tense debate between then-candiate Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton nearly four years ago.

The Democratic National Committee clipped some of Romney’s halting responses in a new web video, pushing the organization’s preferred storyline that the front-runner can’t give a straight answer.

KNIVES, SHARPENED

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is going on the attack against Romney in a new television ad that starts airing Tuesday and includes a narrator’s warning, “Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama?”

It’s worth noting this is one of the first ads that mentions President Obama’s health care law was based on what Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts. The spot also knocks Romney over his support for the Wall Street bailouts and his “liberal” positions on social issues.

Paul also is spending on a new television ad, a 60-second spot that targets Gingrich, Romney and Santorum. It calls Gingrich a serial hypocrite, Santorum a counterfeit conservative and Romney a flip-flopper. “Three men: One vision, more big government, more mandates, less freedom,” a narrator intones.

ROMNEY’S NATIONAL STRENGTH

Even with his shaky debate performance, Romney still remains the prohibitive front-runner for the Republican nomination, as a new national poll released Tuesday by the Washington Post and ABC News shows him with a two-to-one advantage over his closest rivals.

Romney received the support of 35 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationwide. He is followed by Gingrich at 17 percent, Paul at 16 percent, Santorum at 13 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 9 percent.

The rise in Romney’s national standing over the past few months has coincided with an uptick in support from voters who identify themselves as strong Tea Party backers, Evangelical Christians, independents and very conservative.

And there is yet more good news for Romney: Nearly six in 10 of Republicans see him as the Republican candidate best able to defeat President Obama in November. In the Post-ABC poll released in mid-December, Romney held a 10-point advantage over Gingrich on the electability metric. Romney’s margin has swelled to a 47-point margin in the past month.

If there is one development from the survey that might be cause for concern in Romney’s Boston headquarters, it is that an increasing number of Republicans have a negative impression of the front-runner’s private-sector business experience. Slightly more than a third of GOP voters — 34 percent — view Romney’s work at the private equity firm Bain Capital unfavorably, up from 20 percent in last month’s poll.

That shift has come as Romney’s work buying and restructuring companies has come under intense scrutiny by his Republican competitors, especially Gingrich and Perry, as well as the president’s re-election team. And while a majority of Republican voters still view his private-sector experience favorably, the Bain attacks are not likely to go away so long as voters are telling pollsters they have questions about that piece of Romney’s background.

WHAT WILL EVANGELICALS DO IN S.C.?

Santorum may have captured support from key evangelicals, but with just a few days until voters make their choices in South Carolina, his backers don’t seem to be doing much. After the split decision over the weekend, the Morning Line called around in hopes to get a Santorum endorser to outline any grassroots activity.

Officials from Focus on the Family, which doesn’t endorse, did not attend the meeting in Texas because in 2000 and 2008 the group was fractured, said Tom Minnery, the group’s senior vice president. (Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has decided to back Santorum on his own, but there are no announced plans yet to campaign for the former senator.)

“I was surprised that a consensus grew, and to the extent that helps Rick Santorum that’s a good thing,” Minnery told the Morning Line. But he stressed that he thinks Romney can win over evangelicals and pointed out how well the front-runner did in New Hampshire with faith-driven voters.

“What that tells me is that this is a year in which primary voters are taking this all very seriously. They really, really want a candidate who will be victorious in the fall and the question of who can go the distance is a good one,” Minnery said.

Minnery said he thinks social conservatives “could live with” Romney as the GOP nominee, but cautioned there are still voters uncomfortable with his Mormon faith: “He may want to revisit a speech about religion. I think some people will have a hard time voting for a Mormon, but many will understand the policies that he stands for are [better] when compared to President Obama.”

We discussed the evangelical meeting on Monday’s NewsHour.

2012 LINE ITEMS

Tune in Tuesday night to the NewsHour for a look at spending in South Carolina. On the topic, Eliza Newlin Carney writes in Roll Call that a “healthy percentage” of the super PACs’ spending goes “into the pockets of friends, family members and business associates who serve as consultants and vendors to the political action committees.”

“In some cases, the people cashing in on lucrative super PAC contracts are the friends, colleagues and even relatives of the people running and advising those same PACs. And unlike on conventional, candidate-run campaigns or at political party committees, no politician or official is watching where the money goes or answering to regulators,” she writes.

President Obama will attend a fundraiser Thursday night at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Donors in attendance will hear performances by Al Green and India.Arie with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Americans for Prosperity is spending $6 million to put this ad focused on the Solyndra loan controversy up in six states: Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. They are calling it the first major general election push against President Obama.

Could Santorum edge out Romney and actually claim a victory in the Iowa caucuses? The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports: “One campaign source says the vote count as of midday Monday showed Santorum ahead by 80-something votes. If that number holds through certification of the last precincts, Santorum will win. Of course, there is always the possibility that some of the final precincts will contain discrepancies that put Romney back on top. It’s just not clear.”

Stephen Colbert’s super PAC buys time on South Carolina airwaves and urges voters to choose Herman Cain.

The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser (@mviser) reported on Twitter that Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom had a simple explanation for his boss’ absence from the Huntsman endorsement speech: Huntsman didn’t ask.

The DNC put together a compilation of Huntsman’s criticism of Romney over the course of the campaign.

TPM made a video montage bidding farewell to Huntsman and his pop culture references.

TWEET OF THE MORNING

@HotlineReid: West Virginia officials are taking congressional district line fight to Supreme Court, 2nd state to appeal to SCOTUS (after TX) #HotlineSort

OUTSIDE THE LINES

Occupy Protesters plan to welcome Congress back to Washington.

The Washington Post explains the fight over SOPA.

Lawyers expect a grand jury to bring indictments soon against a dozen employees and legislators on charges related to favoritism in the state Probation Department, the Boston Globe reports.

The NewsHour’s Margaret Warner interviews the Washington Post’s Rachel Manteuffel about her successful push to get the inscription at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial changed.

ON WISCONSIN

Wisconsin Democrats are canvassing the state in a final push before Tuesday’s deadline to gather enough recall petitions for their effort to oust Gov. Scott Walker.

The group must file at least 540,208 petitions — 25 percent of voters in the 2010 elections — to get the recall on the ballot, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

The recall is being organized by United Wisconsin, which describes itself as “a non-partisan registered PAC and grassroots organization.” The group’s officials seem confident they will far outpace the required number of petitions. The effort stemmed from a fight during Walker’s first few months in office, when the Republican sought to curb collective-bargaining rights for state workers in an attempt to make up for a $3.6 billion budget deficit.

Democrats also have eyes on recall votes for Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP state legislators.

To get up to speed on the issue, check out our coverage. Jim Lehrer spoke with Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television last spring during the legislative session, and she covered the story last fall as petitions were being collected.

The Tea Party Express had made the recall its primary focus in recent weeks, soliciting donations under the banner of defending against President “Obama’s campaign machine and his radical union mobs.” In a fundraising email sent Monday, the group accused Mr. Obama of attempting to use the recall as a way of engaging his supporters for his re-election.

Top White House officials are warning liberal and labor leaders to brace themselves for President Obama’s budget proposal, The Hill reports. http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/204435-obama-warns-left-you-will-not-like-my-budget

NewsHour political desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events listed in Eastern Time.

  • Mitt Romney holds a rally in Florence, S.C., at 8:30 a.m.

  • Newt Gingrich delivers remarks in Florence, S.C., at 9 a.m., hosts a Florence town hall at 10 a.m., speaks in Columbia, S.C., at 12 p.m. and holds a town hall in West Columbia at 1:30 p.m. He also appears at a pair of candidate forums: in Columbia at 5:30 p.m. and Aiken at 7:30 p.m.

  • Rick Santorum holds a town hall in Charleston, S.C., at 9 a.m., addresses the Aiken Republican Club at 11:30 a.m. and participates in a presidential forum in Columbia at 6 p.m.

  • Rick Perry makes three South Carolina campaign stops: in Murrells Inlet at 9:30 a.m., Columbia at 5 p.m. and Greenville at 8 p.m.

  • Ron Paul holds a press conference in Columbia, S.C., at 10 a.m., and hosts a pair of town halls: in Spartanburg at 2 p.m. and Rock Hill at 4:30 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


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Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @quinnbowman.