Smooth Sailing for Mitt

MYRTLE BEACH, SOUTH CAROLINA—After 15 debates and months of campaigning, one thing is still true of the Republican presidential field: No one wants to take on Mitt Romney.

At first, during last night's South Carolina GOP debate, there were signs that Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry would remove the gloves and challenge the former Massachusetts governor. Gingrich opened his bid with a defense of his statements on Bain Capital—“I don’t think raising questions is a prerogative only of Barack Obama. … I raise questions that I think are legitimate questions.”

Perry continued along those lines, pressing Romney to release his tax returns (to the large applause of the audience). “Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax, so people can find out how you made your money,” Perry said. “The people of South Carolina have to decide whether they have a flawed candidate or not. We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.”

Santorum attacked Romney on his relationship to the super PAC that supports him, asking the governor to disavow its attacks on Santorum’s record. This too was met with applause from the audience. By the end of the first segment, Romney was on the defensive, and the other candidates were well positioned to go in for the kill.

But then, nothing.

The conservative candidates, each ostensibly vying to be the race's alternative to Romney, backed off the former Massachusetts governor, allowing him to take the stage—and command it—on questions about the economy. “What I’m concerned with this president is that he’s taking America to somewhere we wouldn’t recognize. I think he is moving us in the direction of a European social-welfare society,” said Romney, in an obvious pivot to the general election.

With the exception of Perry’s vigorous performance—he declared that South Carolina “is at war with the federal government”—this debate was a throwback to last fall, when the candidates fell into their familiar roles and were outshined by the reactions of the audience.

This was most apparent during the questions on race (apropos Martin Luther King Jr. Day), which were asked—almost exclusively—by Fox News contributor Juan Williams. Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry each worked hard to outdo the other in terms of racial insensitivity. “If Americans do three things: get married, work, and get an education, according to the Brookings Institute, only 2 percent of people end up in poverty,” said Santorum in response to a question about widespread black poverty, implying that African American poverty stems from social pathology.

Newt Gingrich went even further, driving the crowd to cheers when he doubled-down on his view that lower-income children should replace janitors in schools and attacked Barack Obama as a “food-stamp president."

There weren’t many black attendees at the debate, but I managed to ask a few about the candidates' answers on African American issues. “Historically, once you become a Republican front-runner, you get deemed as a racist. I think he’s [Gingrich] confronting that head on, which I think is appropriate, because he’s not going to accept the premise,” said Ashley Bell, a black Republican from Georgia who serves as a district commissioner.

Explaining his preference for the GOP—he switched parties last year—Bell said he feels used by Democrats. “It’s a numbers game—the Democratic Party doesn’t care if you’re liberal or conservative, as long as you vote Democrat,” he said. “I want to be in a party that isn’t a cattle call for my numbers but that cares about my values.”

While the Republican Party doesn’t hold a “cattle call” for numbers, it certainly gives great weight to African Americans who happen to vote for Republicans. Herman Cain stands as one prominent example, as does Representative Tim Scott, the South Carolina congressman with a large following in the state. Scott is a standard-issue Republican with fairly orthodox views whose star has been elevated, in part, by the fact that he’s the most prominent black Republican in the South Carolina GOP and one of two black Republicans in Congress.

There’s no doubt that the GOP cares about his values, but it’s also true that he’s celebrated in a way that wouldn’t happen in a party with more black lawmakers.

Of course, the deeper questions about the GOP and black voters largely went unanswered; the audience clapped for the candidates as they antagonized African American voters and moved on to further cheers (or jeers) for the candidates and their outrageous statements, like Gingrich’s declaration that "Andrew Jackson had a pretty good idea about what do with America's enemies: Kill them."

But for all of the memorable moments in the debate, it should be said that none of this changes the status quo; Romney remains in the pole position, with plenty of room to spare. Likewise, it doesn’t come as a big surprise to learn that the South Carolina GOP is extremely regressive on a whole host of issues—after all, these were the same voters who rejected John McCain in 2000, after the Bush campaign spread rumors about an illegitimate black child.

If anything, this debate was an exercise in validation. Yes, Mitt Romney will be the nominee, and yes, the South Carolina GOP is a little crazy.

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