Debate Reactions

Paul Begala: Huntsman Wins South Carolina Debate by Dropping Out

From Romney’s stammering about his tax returns to the audience booing the Golden Rule, Monday night marked a new low in a seemingly endless series of demoralizing debates.

Emmanuel Dunand / Getty Images

Jon Huntsman was the clear winner of the South Carolina debate. I wonder if the reason he dropped out of the GOP race is because—how do I say this delicately?—these people are craaaazy.

I don’t even mean the candidates. I’ll get to them in a moment. I’m talking about the audience. From the TV cutaways they seemed clean, well-dressed, and drug-free. And yet their reactions would scare off any sane, sensible person. In previous debates the right-wing GOP audiences booed a gay soldier. Someone shouted “Let him die!” in response to a question about an uninsured person.

But in South Carolina they took the cake. The crowd booed the mere mention of the name of the country of Mexico. Just the name. I might understand it if they booed, say, North Korea or Iran or Texas A&M—centers of evil. But Mexico? Good luck with that Latino vote in November, guys.

Then, when Ron Paul said the Golden Rule should guide our foreign policy, the crowd booed. They booed the Golden Rule. Apparently nobody told them that Jesus wrote the Golden Rule. On second thought, they’d have booed Jesus.

Now to the candidates. The über-smooth Romney was actually flustered, both by his competitors and the questions. When asked a simple, direct question about whether he will release his tax returns, he sounded like Ralph Cramden on the old Honeymooners show of his childhood: “Hommina, hommina, hommina.” He kinda, sorta, in a way suggested that he might consider, potentially, possibly coming clean—in April. Right. As soon as I hear back from the Nigerian prince who owes me $10 million.

Romney, who embarrassed himself four years ago lying about “hunting varmints,” stumbled again on the same subject. He was asked if he’s been hunting in the last four years. (Full disclosure: I just returned from a four-day deer hunt in South Texas.) He hemmed. He hawed. He confused elk with moose. And then he said he’d be “delighted” to go if invited. Really? Delighted? Mitt, dear chap, one is delighted to escort Muffy to the cotillion. You’re fired up to hunt. I can see Thurston Romney III sticking his delicate pinky out of the trigger guard, asking his maid to iron his bullets. Maybe it’s just me, but he seems so prim, so prissy when he talks about hunting. You don’t need to enjoy killing animals to be president, Mitt. But just stop peein’ on my boots and tellin’ me it’s raining.

When Rick Santorum pressed Romney on voting rights for criminals who have served their time, Romney seemed not to know what to do. He seems so used to superficial soundbites that he had no idea how to match Santorum at the second and third level of an issue.

But Santorum didn’t move in for the kill. Strange. Newt Gingrich then moved into the void. But he seemed more aggressive attacking Fox News panelist Juan Williams than he did going after Romney.

Rick Perry disgraced himself yet again. I didn’t think it was possible, actually. But Perry is a political limbo bar—you just can’t believe how low he will go. Standing in the state of Fort Sumter, the crypto-secessionist actually said there was a “war” between the federal government and the states. He said Turkey was run by Islamic terrorists and should be kicked out of NATO.

Bottom line: Romney underperformed in the debate, and Gingrich and Santorum did well. But I doubt it will have much effect on the South Carolina vote on Saturday.