Fighting Words

For the first question of tonight’s Republican debate in Charleston, the moderator, CNN’s John King, questioned Gingrich on the allegations made by his ex-wife that he wanted an open marriage. Immediately, Gingrich ripped into King, CNN, and the news media. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you begin a presidential debate with a question like that,” declared the former House Speaker.

The audience roared in support, John King looked chastened, and it’s no exaggeration to say—as several outlets rushed to proclaim—that this was the moment Gingrich won the debate. But this sort of lashing out is par for the course for Gingrich. At Monday’s debate, he attacked moderator Juan Williams for questioning the racial insensitivity of Gingrich’s rhetoric; he got a tremendous bounce from South Carolina voters as a result. That the former House Speaker would double-down on that performance doesn’t come as a surprise, and was helped along by John King’s willingness to provide him the perfect question.

From that moment onward, the former House Speaker dominated. Despite their general incoherence—he proposes “citizen review boards” to handle illegal immigration—his answers were clear and forceful, and he managed to avoid attacks on his record from former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Texas Representative Ron Paul.

One of Gingrich's best moments came when Santorum accused him of being grandiose in his aspirations, saying, “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich.” Taking a page from President Obama, Gingrich defend himself as someone who believes in America’s ability to do big things. “I think this is a grandiose country of grandiose people who do big things,” said the former House Speaker, “And it needs leadership who can pursue big projects.”

If tonight was another triumph for Gingrich, then it was an absolute disaster for Mitt Romney, who reinforced the view that he is dangerously out-of-touch with the experience of most Americans. The key moment came when John King drew on the example of George Romney, Mitt’s father, and asked the former Massachusetts governor if he would release his tax returns, “Back in 1967, your father set a groundbreaking standard in American politics … He released [his tax returns] for not one year but twelve years. "Will you follow your father’s example?” he prodded.

“Maybe,” Romney started, drawing boos from the audience. The response took Romney off guard, and he proceeded to stumble through an answer that was as candid as it was cowardly. “I know the Democrats will go after me on that basis, and that’s why I want to release these things at the same time,” said Romney.

Romney is absolutely right—there’s no doubt that Democrats will attack the fact that Romney draws millions of dollars in income from his tenure at Bain Capital, pays a low tax rate of 15 percent, and does as much as possible to shield his income from federal taxation.

But the problem with Romney’s evasive answer has less to do with his taxes, and everything to do with the contrast to his father. “Maybe” was a shifty response to a clear question that invoked the memory of one of the more praiseworthy politicians of the 20th century. By dodging the question, Romney looked small, and for a candidate who promises a return to “American greatness,” that's not good.

Considering how much the previous debate spurred Gingrich's campaign in South Carolina, it’s likely that this one will do the same. It will probably propel him into first place. But even with a loss in the Palmetto State, the nomination is still Romney’s to lose.

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