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The Final Fight for South Carolina

11:40 PM, Jan 19, 2012 • By FRED BARNES
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In a pinch, Newt Gingrich resorts to his specialty: attacking the media. He did it again Thursday night in the Republican presidential debate in North Charleston, South Carolina. And the audience responded enthusiastically to his angry denunciation of CNN moderator John King for making his former wife’s charge that he wanted an “open” marriage the first issue in the debate.

The Final Fight for South Carolina

Given a chance, none of Gingrich’s three opponents piled on.  That put the issue to rest in the two-hour debate.

But chances are it didn’t among voters in the state’s primary on Saturday. How much Marianne Gingrich’s interview with ABC News will affect the outcome is anybody’s guess. But it’s a question of whether it hurts Gingrich a lot, a little, or not at all.  We’ll get the answer on Saturday.

Gingrich has benefited from attacking the media twice before in Fox News debates. In one, he took after anchor Chris Wallace and drew cheers from the audience. And just this past Monday, he strongly disputed a question by Juan Williams about disrespecting poor people by using the phrase “food stamp nation.” He turned that tiff into a TV ad.

But thumping the media is easy, especially before an auditorium of partisan Republicans. And it normally provides little lasting support. In 1992, the elder President Bush made “Annoy the Media, Vote for Bush” a slogan of his reelection campaign. It didn’t help.

Gingrich fared better with the crowd than he did in disagreements with Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum, his three opponents for the GOP presidential nomination.  Romney, for one, shredded Gingrich’s assertion the health care law enacted when Romney was Massachusetts governor had pro-abortion aspects. Santorum ripped Gingrich for erratic behavior as House Republican leader and then speaker in the 1990s. Gingrich didn’t respond directly, instead rattling off a list of his achievements in Congress.

Romney also zinged him effectively after Gingrich spoke as if he had been a major ally of President Reagan in Washington.  Romney noted that Gingrich had but one mention in Reagan’s 650-page diary and that one was unfavorable.

Gingrich didn’t lose the debate, but he didn’t repeat his dazzling performance in Monday’s televised debate. Meanwhile, Romney recovered from his poor performance in that debate.

Romney had trouble again with a question about when he’ll release his tax returns. He said he’d release his 2010 tax return when it’s submitted to IRS in April. King asked, why not release earlier returns now? Well, Romney said lamely, I want to turn over everything at once. This issue will continue to bug Romney.

Santorum may have had his best debate, though he didn’t offer the quips and zingers that Romney and Gingrich were good at. He was tough on Romney on health care, but that may simply aid Gingrich, whom he must soar past if he’s to become Romney’s chief conservative challenger.

Paul had a very good debate, particularly because he didn’t have an opportunity to spell out his isolationist views and his wacky views about 9/11 and the motives of the Islamist attackers. For once, he was actually appealing.

None of the four stumbled into a swamp of trouble—unless one considers Gingrich’s show-stopping tirade against the media to be a mistake. Gingrich knew his former wife would come up and his response was to go on offense. He used a cheap tactic that, in the long run of the campaign, is not likely to rescue him.

Nobody was dominant in the debate. After so many debates, all the candidates have gotten pretty good. For what it’s worth, I’d rank how candidates did in this order: 1) Romney 2) Paul 3) Santorum 4) Gingrich.

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