In their last chance to make an impression before the South Carolina primary, the final four Republican presidential candidates tangled again for another round of debating. Broadcast on CNN from the North Charleston Coliseum, here are the top moments.
1. Newt Gingrich Rages Against the Media
Moderator John King opened the debate by asking Gingrich about his ex-wife's claim that he'd asked her to enter into an open marriage. In a response that received a standing ovation from the audience, Gingrich denied his ex-wife's allegations and expressed outrage at the news media for covering a story on the personal life of someone running for president of the United States:
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.
2. Ron Paul's Revisionist History Lesson
When asked whether veterans, who have a particularly high unemployment rate, should receive targeted help to get jobs, Paul responded that such an idea is unprecedented:
After World War II, we had 10 million come home all at once. But what did we do then? There were some of the liberals back then that said, "Oh, we have to have more work programs and do this and that." And they thought they would have to do everything conceivable for those 10 million. They never got around to it because they came home so quickly. And you know what the government did? They cut the budget by 60 percent … And everybody went back to work again, you didn't need any special programs.
Huh? It was Gingrich who reminded Paul that actually, after WWII the federal government passed the G.I. Bill — the dramatic law that provided college or vocational education for every WWII veteran, a year of unemployment compensation and loans to help them buy homes and start businesses.
3. Mitt Romney Says He Would Replace President Obama's Health Care Reform Law … With Obama's Health Care Law?
While explaining that if elected he would not only repeal "Obamacare," Romney vowed to also replace it with a system like his Massachusetts health care plan. But in extolling his plan's assets and laying out how it works, he described bullet points that also apply to Obama's health care law, which basically does the same things.
First, it's a bill that does care for people that have preexisting conditions. If they've got a preexisting condition and they've been previously insured, they won't be denied insurance going forward. Secondly, I'd allow people to buy their own insurance, rather than just be able to get it from their employer. I want people to be able to take their insurance with them if they go from job to job. So we'll make it work in the way that's designed to have health care act like a market, a consumer market, as opposed to have it run like Amtrak and the post office … Ours is the party of free enterprise, freedom, markets, consumer choice.
4. Rick Santorum Knocks Gingrich Down a Peg
On the campaign trail, Gingrich suggested that it was time for Santorum to drop out of the race, in order to shore up the "not-Romney" vote and give himself a better shot at defeating the front-runner. Santorum defended himself quite effectively, with some slams against Gingrich's brash temperament:
Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. He handles it very, very well. And that's really one of the issues here, folks. I mean, a month ago, he was saying that "Oh, I'm — it's inevitable that I'm going to win the election. And I'm destined to do it." I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and worrying about what he's going to say next. And that's what I think we're seeing here.
For him to suggest that someone who was tied for first and eventually won the Iowa caucuses, and finished with twice as many votes as he did, and finished ahead of him in New Hampshire — in spite of the fact that he spent an enormous amount more money in both those places, plus had the most important endorsement in the state, the Manchester Union Leader. And I was 10 points behind him a week before the election, and then finished ahead of him. So I was 2-0 coming into South Carolina, and I should get out of the race? These are not cogent thoughts.
5. Romney Waffles on His Tax Return (and Gets Booed)
Romney's been cagey on his tax return for weeks now, surrounded by questions of offshore accounts and other loopholes, and he's still struggling to find a way to address it with any authority. After Romney said that he would release his tax return in April when it's finished, John King asked him why he wouldn't just show his return from last year. Romney's response:
Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama. [Note: Suspicious answer, but least he was honest?] Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks.
When asked whether would follow his father's lead in releasing multiple years of tax returns, this happened: "Maybe." (nervous, forced chuckles) (boos from the audience)
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.