North Charleston, S.C.

The debate here began with the most salacious news of the day: the claim by Marianne Gingrich that her ex-husband wanted an open marriage. And, in a sense, it ended there, too.

Newt Gingrich, rising in the polls in this state on the strength of his debate performances, angrily smacked down the question and delivered, quickly and forcefully, a lecture on media ethics. Gingrich, of course, knows how to create a moment. And the audience roared its approval, three times standing as Gingrich excoriated CNN moderator John King.

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 would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that . . . Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.

In an instant, Gingrich transformed himself into the most sympathetic man on stage, making it virtually impossible to attack effectively over the course of the rest of the debate.

The next topic made that clear. King shifted the conversation to Bain capital and the attacks that Gingrich had leveled against Mitt Romney—critiques that generated stirring defenses of Romney from conservatives who had been skeptical of his candidacy. It was a conversation that should have been difficult for Gingrich. It wasn’t. He quickly dispensed with the question and shifted to a broader discussion of capitalism—friendlier ground.

So the debate began on two topics that should have been difficult for Gingrich, and when they were done discussing them, Gingrich was ahead. His performance tonight was marked by the kind of quick rejoinders and authoritative putdowns that have characterized his efforts in debates since the beginning of the race. A discussion of health care and adult children who might be kicked off their parents plans if Obamacare were to be repealed produced this gem: “Elect us and your kids will be able to move out ‘cause they’ll have work.”

Later, when Rick Santorum argued that Gingrich would have a tough time debating Barack Obama on health care, the former House speaker offered a quick preview of what he’d say to Obama. “I can say: I was wrong and figured it out. You were wrong and you didn’t.”

Santorum, who won Iowa today after two weeks of listening to Romney described as the victor there, arrived here with the pugnacity of a candidate who has been running a distant third in polls in the state.

Santorum, who has previously spent much of his debate time sparring with Ron Paul, focused his attention Thursday on Gingrich and Romney—and to some effect. Santorum sought to portray Gingrich and Romney as two of a kind—politicians who have been conservatives when it suits them, and not always when principles required it. He spoke of the need for Republicans to provide a clear “contrast” with Obama and claimed repeatedly that Romney and Gingrich couldn’t do that because of positions they’d taken in the past.

The clearest contrast Santorum provided was when he described himself. “We need someone—I'm not the most flamboyant, and I don't get the biggest applause lines here. But I'm steady. I'm solid. I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about. I'm going to be out there. I'm going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign.” (Santorum used the word “contrast” seven times over the course of the debate.)

Santorum pushed this line most forcefully on health care, where he accused both men of having supported the individual mandate at the heart of Obamacare. The result was a fifteen-minute debate about health care—much of it focused on Romney and Massachusetts. (At one point, Romney even called his health care plan “Romneycare.”)

Santorum’s best moment came during an exchange on illegal immigration. The former Pennsylvania senator has a position on immigration that is considerably less forgiving than those of his two chief rivals – and probably closer to that of South Carolina voters. But he explained it with a soft touch, letting logic drive the contrast he was seeking.

“The idea that someone, whether it's either of these two gentlemen, the idea that someone who came here and lived here 25 years has only broken one law—if they've worked for 25 years, they've been breaking the law for 25 years,” he said, his answer interrupted by applause.

“If they've been working, they have probably stolen someone's Social Security number and they've committed Social Security fraud. They—this is not just a single occurrence. It's an ongoing issue. And if we treat people like that differently than we do with a mother who, out of a desperate situation, goes out and shoplifts or does something and gets thrown in jail, what are we saying, that we're going to treat people in this country who do things for their family differently than those who are here illegally?”

If you’re reading the transcript at home, Santorum might well have won the debate on points. But he often came off too hot and angry.

For the second debate in a row, Romney seemed off balance as he struggled to answer questions about his taxes. Romney, who began the debate with a gracious answer to a question about Gingrich’s divorce (calling for a discussion of “real issues”), committed to releasing his tax returns at some point, going beyond what he indicated he would do in the Fox debate Monday night. But, in a response that drew boos from the audience, Romney dodged a clever question from King about how many years of past returns he would make public. King noted that Romney’s father had released 12 years of back returns when he ran for president in 1968, saying that returns from just one year could be manipulated.

“When you release yours, will you follow your father’s example?” King asked.

“Maybe,” Romney responded, pointing out that he knows Democrats will attack him using the returns.

In the spin room afterwards, each candidate’s surrogates earnestly claimed his candidate had won. And Gingrich, in an interview on CNN, said he was quite pleased with the way the debate had gone. CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist captured Gingrich’s comments in a tweet: “I thought it was a great debate. I thought John King did a great job.”

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