The question that defines the Republican presidential race in South Carolina is whether the party's base will rally around a consensus alternative to Mitt Romney before Saturday's primary -- or if the former Massachusetts governor will benefit from divided opposition, post his third victory in as many contests, and all but clinch the nomination.
Heading into Monday night's debate, luck seemed to be on Romney's side. Polls last week showed Newt Gingrich posing the most serious threat to Romney's first place position, but a high-profile weekend endorsement by evangelical leaders had infused Rick Santorum's campaign with just enough new life to potentially keep Gingrich from catching Romney. The most recent poll underscores this, with Romney running at 32 percent, Gingrich at 21 and Santorum at 13.
But in the debate, Newt just may have attained the separation from Santorum that he so desperately needs. He did this not by attacking Romney's Bain Capital record; loud condemnation from conservative opinion-shapers has caused him to ease up on the subject, and when debate panelists tried to engage him on it Monday night, he claimed only that he'd tried to raise reasonable questions about Romney's business record and showed no interest in saying more. Instead, Newt struck gold by catering to racial and class resentments -- with an assist (presumably unintended) from one of the panelists.
The key exchange took place in the debate's second segment, when Fox News contributor Juan Williams brought up Gingrich's statement that "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps" and his claim that children in poor areas don't understand the value of work and could learn it by doing the jobs of school janitors.
“Can’t you see," Williams asked, "that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”
In a general election debate, this might have been a challenging question for Gingrich to field. But this was a GOP primary debate in a state where the modern Republican Party was essentially created out of a white backlash against the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights. Some in the live audience in Myrtle Beach hissed at Williams, one of the few Democratic-friendly voices on Fox, and Gingrich milked their outrage for all it was worth.
"No," he said matter of factly, " I don't see that."
Neither did the crowd, of course, which responded with one of the night's most thunderous bursts of applause, a scene that was repeated when Gingrich punctuated his explanation to Williams by saying, "Only elites despise earning money."
This came just moments after Gingrich had brought the house down by claiming that Barack Obama doesn't believe that work is good and by railing against "unconditional efforts by the best food stamp president in American history to maximize dependency is terrible for the future of this country.” It was all a reminder of Gingrich's unparalleled ability to serve up pure red meat to a party base that has spent the past three years being sold a caricature of Obama as radical redistributionist.
But then Newt really got lucky: Williams decided to ask him a follow-up.
"I've got to tell you," he said, "my email account, my Twitter account has been inundated with people of all races asking if your comments were not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina ..."
Williams was referring to the grilling Gingrich faced from parishoners at the Jones Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Sunday, but by this point his words were being drowned out by jeers from the crowd. When they quieted, he finished: "You saw this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked why you refer to President Obama as 'the food stamp president.' It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people."
"Well," Gingrich replied, "First of all, Juan ..."
There were laughs at this.
"The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps under Barack Obama than any other president in American history."
"Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
“Second, you’re the one who earlier raised a key point. The area that ought to be on I-73 was called by Barack Obama a corridor of shame because of unemployment. Has it improved in three years? No. They haven’t built a road. They haven’t helped the people. They haven’t done anything.”
"So here’s my point: I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness, and if that makes liberals unhappy I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday how to own the job.”
By this point, the audience was practically chanting Gingrich's name. When it comes to massaging the resentments of the party base, no Republican candidate has had a finer five-minute stretch than this during the entire campaign. It's the kind of performance that fueled Gingrich's unlikely polling surge this fall, and it's very possible that it will do the same now in the South Carolina home stretch.
This is especially when you consider that Santorum pretty much bombed. Why? Because the closest he came to scoring points on Monday was when he picked a fight with Mitt Romney over voting rights for convicted felons. Santorum pointed out that it was Martin Luther King Day and that "this is a huge deal in the African-American community." Romney responded that, "I don’t think people who commit violent crimes should be allowed to vote again."
The crowd liked that reply, as you might expect, showing that Romney seemed to understand his audience better than Santorum -- but not nearly as well as Gingrich.