Paul Begala: Newt Rampages, Romney Folds in South Carolina Debate

In the most consequential debate of the primary season, Gingrich won the debate in the first minute and left Romney looking weak.

01.20.12 3:45 AM ET

Wow. The 17th GOP debate was the most electric—and the most consequential—of this primary season.

Newt Gingrich won the debate in the first minute by casting himself as the victim not of a failed marriage but of a corrupt liberal media that is in bed with Barack Obama.

Gingrich is the most shameless of politicians, and in the CNN debate he took chutzpah to a new level. He excoriated moderator John King for leading the debate with the most talked-about story on the most intense day of the campaign season. Leading with Marianne Gingrich’s sensational charge that her then-husband wanted “an open marriage” was a no-brainer. Newt must have known that. He must have also known that the issue was an opportunity to divert attention from his long-past marital woes and onto the GOP's antipathy for the press.

Right wingers who claim to love the Constitution seem to hate the First Amendment. They cheered lustily when Gingrich attacked King personally. Newt puffed himself up to dirigible size and glared at John King, telling him he was “close to despicable,” which is true—because at that moment King was standing awfully close to Gingrich.

The rest of the debate was only anticlimactic by comparison. Rick Santorum came to life, hammering Mitt Romney for Romneycare. Santorum then summoned all his intellect and passion to eviscerate Gingrich for unsteady, erratic, inconstant leadership in the House. Had it not been for Newt’s opening blitzkrieg, Santorum would have won the debate.

Mitt Romney had a weak night. He loved watching Santorum hit Gingrich, but could not take the heat when it was directed at him. If the collapse of Gingrich’s marriage was an obvious question for Newt, Romney knew he’d be asked about releasing his tax returns. But unlike Gingrich, who was loaded for bear, Romney was still defensive, disingenuous, and dodgy. King noted that Romney’s father released 12 years of prior tax returns when he ran for president—a fact that was reported numerous times this week and was even mentioned by the president’s press secretary in the White House Briefing Room. And yet Romney had no answer. He mumbled that he “probably” would. There was a smattering of boos.

On abortion, too, Romney was unsteady. Romney once spoke passionately about a relative who died from an illegal abortion, citing her death as evidence of his heartfelt and enduring commitment to abortion rights. Until he switched. He was timid and almost apologetic as Santorum took him to task.

Once more, Romney seems hellbent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.