Friday, January 20, 2012

Cleaning up the Octagon after the fights

No blood, no teeth, but a nasty mess never-the-less.

The race for the Republican presidential nomination took a turn toward the South Carolina surreal Thursday as Rick Perry dropped out, Newt Gingrich faced stunning allegations from an ex-wife and Mitt Romney struggled to maintain a shaky front-runner's standing.

An aggressive evening debate capped the bewildering day.

"Aggressive" is a word I use when my pit bull sees a squirrel in the back yard. Newt turned rabid on CNN's John King.

Gingrich angrily denounced the news media for putting his ex-wife front and center in the final days of the race. "Let me be clear, the story is false," he said. Santorum, Romney and Paul steered well clear of the controversy. "Let's get onto the real issues, that's all I've got to say," said Romney, although he pointed out that he and his wife, Ann, have been married for 42 years.

The audience gave Gingrich a standing ovation when he assailed the media, a reaction he can only hope is reflected in voter sentiment on Saturday.

And just like that, it was over.

Paul Begala:

Newt Gingrich won the debate in the first minute by casting himself as the victim not of a failed marriage but of a corrupt liberal media that is in bed with Barack Obama.

Lloyd Grove:

The former speaker lashed out like the tough guy he is, as he endured everything from John King’s questions about his ex-wife’s open-marriage allegation to Santorum’s attack on his leadership abilities.

Newt Gingrich was like a giant death star, threatening at any moment to suck into his field of gravity every single molecule of matter—from his rival presidential candidates on the stage beside him to the raucous South Carolina Republicans in the audience in front of him.

Michael Tomaskey:

And that was the only truly dramatic moment of the night. John King started with Marianne, and Newt drew not one standing ovation as he had with Juan Williams, but two. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic that …” You couldn’t even hear the rest in the hall. First standing ovation. “Every person here knows personal pain.” Nice! Blah blah blah, “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.” Blah blah blah. “I am frankly astounded.” Blah. Then—right at King. “John, don’t try to blame somebody else.” Then—a brilliant opening of the hood, showing the assembled how the machine really functions. “We offered several friends to ABC,” which didn’t want to hear from them. And finally—it took him a while, but he finally hit on where to take this, which was against the media. “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama and …” Couldn’t hear the rest. Second standing ovation.

Those were turnaround lines that no one else on that stage could have pulled off, which speaks well of Gingrich in a way, but really poorly of him, which is to say that only a person essentially without conscience could do all that with such brio.

Bless his heart, Rick Santorum got in a few punches, kicks, and scratches -- not to mention the best scowls of the evening, seen repeatedly thanks to CNN's split screen. But he is simply no match for Newt. Michelle Cottle:

(Last night), Rick Santorum repeatedly and loudly cried bullshit on the speaker.

“Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” Santorum said of his opponent’s shameless self-promotion. “A month ago, he was saying, ‘Oh, I’m inevitable.’ It was, ‘I’m destined to do it.’”

Of Newt’s electoral braggadocio, Santorum charged, “These are not cogent thoughts.”

Spot on, brother. And yet...

I’ll bet $10,000 that none of Santorum’s attacks tonight will make a lasting impression on anyone who doesn’t already share his concerns.

It’s not really Santorum’s fault. The senator was, even more than usual, passionate, cogent, and earnest in his criticisms. Not to mention accurate.

But there is just something about Senator Sweater Vest that doesn’t resonate, no matter how fired up he gets. It is a matter of presentation: He is too plaintive, too beseeching—even when he’s got both barrels blazing. He is begging rather than commanding us to recognize Gingrich’s many absurdities.

It's just his fine Christian upbringing, I suppose. Not even God and His Earthly minions can save Frothy Mixture now. A smaller mess, easily cleaned up by next week.

Meanwhile, on a vast luxury cruise ship off the coast of Italy...

Mitt Romney still looks the most presidential of the foursome, but his claim of electability is wearing thin. In each successive debate, he reminds me more of Robert Redford in The Candidate. He will say and do whatever it takes, including withholding his tax returns until after he secures the nomination. Newt Gingrich is right when he says if there’s something in Romney’s tax returns that could sink his candidacy, it’s better to know now than after he’s the nominee.

Romney knows that too, which must be why he sputters and looks acutely uncomfortable when pressed to say declaratively when he’ll release his returns, and for how many years.

When asked if he would release twelve years of tax returns, as his father George did when he ran for president in 1968, Mitt said "maybe," and promptly got booed by those in the hall.

(Here's where Greg will send me another comment that says, "It was only a few people who booed...")

Ron Paul was, once more, the septuagenarian in comfortable shoes who got mostly ignored.

At one point, as moderator John King was making his rounds with each of the candidates, he inexplicably skipped over Ron Paul. The choice to skip the Texas congressman was odd given that Dr. Paul is a retired obstetrician and gynecologist. Paul, of course, noted this after a hearty round of boos from the audience.

“John, once again, it’s a medical subject. I’m a doctor!” Paul beamed. “No, I do want to make a couple comments because I can remember the very early years studying obstetrics and I was told — it was before the age of abortion. I was told taking care of a woman that’s pregnant, you have two patients. I think that solves a lot of the problem about, you know, when life begins and all.”

Paul went on to explain his experience with the 1960's culture and that "the morality of the country changed" and "the law followed up."

"When morality changed, it reflects on the laws. The law’s very important. We should have these laws. Law will not correct the basic problem. That’s the morality of the people."

That's a nice straddle between pro-life and pro-choice. Plenty of dog whistles to both sides in that answer.

All four candidates failed their history exams, as usual.

Prediction: Gingrich wins on Saturday, Santorum finishes fourth and quits shortly thereafter, and it's a two-horse race to Florida on January 31st. There are five states that caucus in February, but no primaries that count until Arizona and Michigan on February 28.

I hope this means there will be fewer debates...

Update: Santorum third with 17%, Paul fourth with 13%. It's the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse for at least a couple more weeks, maybe longer. "Hello, Costco? How much is a tractor trailer of Orville Redenbacher's?"

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