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GOP debate: The gloves come off in strange form of combat

January 19, 2012 |  7:58 pm

On Thursday evening, the gloves came off.  For the first time in this year’s long march of Republican primary debates, every contestant behaved as if this were his last round in the ring, his last desperate chance to survive the competition.  CNN?  It looked more like WWF.

Mitt Romney attacked Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Gingrich attacked Romney, Santorum and CNN. Santorum attacked Romney, Gingrich, and Ron Paul. Congressman Paul was an oasis of relative civility, although he did find time to attack the Republican congressional leadership, the Federal Reserve and Medicare.

It was as if the success of Gingrich’s truculent attitude in the last debate -- the belligerence that won a standing ovation when he faced down Juan Williams of Fox News -- infected all four  remaining candidates with a new fighting spirit. 

When CNN’s John King asked Gingrich about his ex-wife’s charge that the former speaker had asked her for an “open marriage,” Gingrich quickly turned the crowd against CNN. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama,” Gingrich said to cheers.

When King asked Romney about his record as a venture capitalist, the former private equity mogul replied: “I’m going to stand and defend capitalism.... We’re going to stuff it down [Obama’s] throat.” More cheers.

Santorum went after Gingrich. “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” he said. With Gingrich, he warned, Republican voters will always be “worrying about what he’s going to say next.”

Gingrich came right back. “I think grandiose thoughts,” he agreed proudly. “This is a grandiose country..... Long before Rick came to Congress, I was busy being a rebel.”

In the middle of the debate, Gingrich released his tax returns. That forced Romney to promise that he would release several years of his returns -- three months from now, once most of the primaries are done. Would he follow his father’s example and release 12 years’ worth? “Maybe,” Romney said with a nervous laugh.

Who won? Actually, they’re all getting better at this strange form of combat; you could make a case that all four survivors did well enough to stay in. So it was strangely reassuring that, at the end of Thursday’s bout, King announced another debate -- one week from now, in Florida.       


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--Doyle McManus

Photo: Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, left, and Newt Gingrich are seen during the debate at the North Charleston Coliseum on Jan. 19 in South Carolina. Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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