There was a moment, when Rick Santorum was pounding him early in the Fox News debate, that Mitt Romney got that deer-in-the-headlights look.
Unable to explain an ad attacking Santorum’s position on allowing felons to vote, Romney tried to push it off on his super PAC, then stalled for time, then said he couldn’t change a more lenient law in Massachusetts because there were just too many Democrats.
Romney, who had just survived a pounding over his record at Bain Capital, looked rattled. Fortunately for him, the question of voting rights for ex-convicts isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of the South Carolina primary. He survived Monday night in Myrtle Beach with barely a scratch—and his rivals had forfeited another chance to derail his seemingly inevitable march to the GOP nomination.
The one issue that may come back to haunt him is one that he initially avoided answering, when Rick Perry joined Newt Gingrich in demanding that Romney release his tax returns. He seemed tentative when pressed by a Wall Street Journal reporter, finally saying he’d maybe, probably put out the records in April—in other words, after he’s got the nomination safely locked up. But voters already know he’s a member in good standing of the top .01 percent, and it’s hard to see that question wounding him before Saturday’s South Carolina vote.
Gingrich finessed a question on why he had abandoned his vow to run a positive campaign, saying it amounted to “unilateral disarmament.” But when Romney commended Newt on one of his key talking points—that he helped Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton create millions of jobs—it was clear that Mitt had no desire, and no need, to throw a single punch.
Danger briefly lurked for Romney when a questioner from Twitter asked about his flip-flop history and asked for reassurance that he won’t change his mind again. Romney brought up his evolution on abortion and how his thinking evolved while he was governor, and he seemingly defused the matter.
Gingrich, for his part, took some heat from Juan Williams, the only liberal Fox commentator who has joined one of the debates and who took it upon himself to ask a series of race-related questions. When Williams asked whether Newt was trying to “belittle” minorities and the poor by pushing janitor jobs for schoolkids, Gingrich doubled down, invoked liberal Time columnist Joe Klein—and the crowd booed Williams.
The debate was essentially over in the first 15 minutes, when Romney was pressed about specific companies that closed down after his venture-capital firm took them over. Romney conceded that not every investment panned out but pivoted to a broader argument that his experience in the corporate trenches helped him in running the Olympics and the state of Massachusetts. Perhaps Perry and Gingrich were treading carefully, given the conservative backlash to their criticism of Mitt’s heartless capitalism. By the second hour, the attacks on Romney had all but subsided. He even got to say, on a question about guns, that he’d done a little pheasant hunting since his clumsy answer in the last campaign about shooting varmints.
Gingrich and Santorum turned in reasonably strong performances, and the campaign might have looked different if Perry had been as solid early on as he was Monday night. But with South Carolina voting in five days, nothing happened on that stage that would derail Romney from winning—after which there wouldn’t be much need for more debates.