Who Won the South Carolina Debate? Newt Gingrich Wins, Ron Paul Second, Mitt Romney Last

On Thursday, the final four remaining GOP candidates had one last chance to stake their positions for voters ahead of Saturday's crucial South Carolina primary.

For all intense and purposes Newt Gingrich won the night, after leading a full assault against GOP front-runner Mitt Romney by attacking both his character and his policy stances, while also painting himself as a candidate with strong solutions to many of America’s problems.

The debate was an important test for Romney, especially as he looked to maintain his frontrunner status, a position which over the last few days has been threatened as Gingrich has closed the polling gap. In some polls, Gingrich even leads Romney.

Gingrich gunned for Romney throughout the night, dogging the former Massachusetts governor on everything from his stance on abortion, to his job-creation strategy, to his 15% tax rate.

Also facing attacks from Rick Santorum, Romney could do nothing more than play defense, sticking to his normal talking points and broadly criticizing Obama, while providing few policy solutions of note.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) also stuck to his typical libertarian talking points. Paul and other libertarians have routinely criticized the media for ignoring his campaign, and it did seem tonight that CNN moderator John King at times passed up Paul. In one instance, all candidates but Paul were able to weigh in on the critical issue of abortion. As King began turning to another question without getting Paul’s input, the crowd booed, and King was forced to get Paul’s opinion on the issue.

Paul is polling third in South Carolina, but remains Romney’s biggest threat nationally. Paul made no moves to push himself to the fore in Thursday’s debate, maintaining a passive-aggressive stance and peddling his typical substance-lite policies.

Santorum, like Gingrich, was aggressive in calling out other candidates, but often seemed stiff and even un-genuine. When asked what aspect of the campaign they would do differently if they had the chance for a mulligan, Santorum answered “nothing,” highlighting that he was proud he had made it this far. The answer sounded oddly like he was praising himself for a flawless campaign.

The debate had followed a wild day in election news, as it was announced Romney had in fact lost the Iowa caucus to Santorum, Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race, and Gingrich was accused by his ex-wife of seeking an open marriage so he could maintain a relationship with his mistress.

The debate covered issues ranging from immigration (Gingrich said he supported the Arizona immigration law and would drop federal lawsuits against it his first day in the White House) to the online copyright law SOPA (which all candidates agreed was a bad law).

Veteran unemployment sparked a big debate among the four candidates, as King asked each man how he would help solve unemployment among veterans aged 18-24, a demographic which currently experiences a 22% unemployment rate – almost three times the national average.  

Paul himself receives significant backing from people in or associated with the military – netting almost “twice as many donations as all other groups put together,” as Paul said. Yet Paul could only provide a vague answer to this question, saying he would “provide assistance when necessary.”

Paul’s stance on veteran’s issues is troubling, especially as this is one of his biggest support groups. While he said he would drastically cut the military and its activities abroad, Paul’s libertarian ideology undoubtedly sees veteran programs like the G.I. Bill, the office of Veterans Affairs, and veteran programs like TriCare as government waste. Paul’s vague stance on veteran’s issue should be criticized by other candidates.

Heading into Saturday’s primary, Gingrich seems to have all the momentum. While Romney maintains a strong lead in the national poll and in Florida, where the next primary will be held at the end of the month, South Carolina could prove to be a footing for Gingrich to launch a more concerted campaign to overtake Romney.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore