The 16th debate of the Republican presidential primary season ended Monday with front-runner Mitt Romney bruised but not beaten. Gov. Rick Perry delivered one of his stronger performances, while Congressman Ron Paul remained blunt and unwavering on his anti-war, noninterventionist foreign policies.
During a two-hour debate before a highly enthused and vocal audience in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the moderators from Fox News and The Wall Street Journal mentioned the notable absence of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the race earlier in the day. That left the four underdogs scrambling for more airtime. They spent the first quarter of the debate criticizing Romney’s business record as the former head of Bain Capital, disputing his job-creation claims.
Perry topped his accusation that Romney is a “vulture capitalist” by challenging the multimillionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor to release his tax records.
“Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money. I think that's a fair thing," Perry said. “We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now."
Romney indicated he might do so by April, but he didn’t commit to revealing his returns any sooner.
Though the Texas governor appeared stronger and more confident in this latest matchup, the post-debate pundits said it may be “too little, too late.” Perry has failed to break into the top tier ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, according to numerous polls.
Perry's South Carolina campaign chairman, Katon Dawson, said Perry “had a tremendous showing. They couldn't question his credentials tonight. They questioned Governor Romney's ... when you came down to the issues of gun ownership, social issues, economic ability and viability, Governor Perry made an A on all of the above. I think he connected well tonight with South Carolina voters."
A spirited exchange took place over Paul’s views that spending on overseas bases and “nation building” needs to end. The congressman, who polls show is in a fight for third place in South Carolina, drew both jeers and cheers for his previous claims that Americans trampled on Pakistan’s sovereignty when President Obama authorized the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Paul said he voted to allow the president to go after bin Laden, but he felt the U.S. had taken too long and gone too far by occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If another country does to us what we do to others — we're not going to like it very much,” he said, before bringing up President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warnings about the military industrial complex. “We don't get strength by diluting ourselves in 900 bases in 130 countries. … I've never understood this. We're supposed to be conservative. Spend less money!"
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Romney called Paul’s foreign policy irrational and promised they would take enemies out before they could strike on U.S. soil.
Immediately after the testy back and forth, Paul's campaign sent out an email with the subject line, "Ron Paul's Plan DOES NOT Freeze Pentagon Budget." Instead, they argued, his plan would "end foreign wars, bring troops home, end foreign aid and welfare, and cap growth at 1 percent annually."
Perry drew strong applause from the audience for his lines about turning Congress into a part-time body. He also went after Obama for his “ongoing war against organized religion” and criticized the administration’s characterization of the video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses as “utterly despicable.” He also suggested zeroing out foreign aid to Turkey because it is perceived to be “ruled by Islamic terrorists.”
Some might consider Perry’s assessment to be brash and inaccurate, because Turkey is an important U.S. ally in that part of the world.
By the end of the event, which Fox News televised, Romney blasted the political action committees that have been spending big bucks on negative ads.
At the same time, Paul’s campaign released an email that links to its latest attack ad against Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Gingrich. During the debate, the Texas congressman said negative spots based on voting records are “fair game.”
In a statement released with the online-only spot, the Paul campaign says it was going after the "serial hypocrisy, counterfeit conservatism, and flip-flopping of Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney, respectively."
After the broadcast, Fox News correspondent John Robertstracked some of the debate trends on Twitter. According to the initial social media reports, Romney spent the majority of the night in a “red” zone, meaning many people used the hashtag #dodge to describe his answers.
Meanwhile, Paul fared consistently in the “green” zone, meaning the audience felt he answered the moderators’ questions. Perry also tracked "above the line" in the “green” zone.