Final Stretch

South Carolina Showdown as GOP Candidates Face Off in Fox Debate

Howard Kurtz on whether going negative could backfire at Monday’s Fox debate in Myrtle Beach.

David McNew / Getty Images

If it lives up to the tradition of South Carolina’s down-and-dirty Republican primaries, Monday night’s presidential debate in Myrtle Beach will be a raucous affair.

After all, the Fox News faceoff has all the elements needed for a slugfest. The candidates are tired by this point, and tired of each other. For Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry, South Carolina could be their last stand. They’ve been sharpening their lines of attack against Mitt Romney and now have a chance to deliver them before a national audience.

But they may muzzle themselves, as they did at that ABC debate the Saturday night before the New Hampshire primary. Each of the candidates held back, seemingly waiting for someone else to go first. The result was a flat debate in which Romney emerged largely unscathed. (Perhaps realizing they had whiffed, Romney’s rivals were a bit more aggressive at the next morning’s Meet the Press debate.)

The calculation they must make is this: voters are often turned off when candidates appear too negative. It’s one thing to let your super PAC carpet-bomb your opponent; it’s another thing to tackle him with your own bare hands. The danger is that the candidate seems like a hatchetman and obscures his positive message.

But if the also-rans don’t bloody Romney on Monday night—or at the CNN debate in Charleston on Thursday—he’ll likely roll to his third straight victory in the Jan. 21 primary. And it will be hard for the press to pretend that this race is anything but over.

For Romney, the objective is simple: staying alive. He has to defend his record, especially at Bain Capital, without sounding defensive, but has no need to poke his rivals in the eye. Romney especially has no incentive to engage Ron Paul, who will clearly turn out his loyalists in every state but is not a threat to win the nomination.

Based on the numbers, an upset isn’t impossible. According to the Real Clear Politics average of South Carolina polls, Romney leads with 29.5 percent of the vote, with Gingrich at 20.8, Santorum at 17, Paul at 12.5, Perry at 5.3, and Jon Huntsman (who didn’t get much of a “ticket to ride” out of his third-place New Hampshire showing and left the race on Monday) at 4.3.

That’s a lousy showing for a Southerner like Perry, who seems like a dead man walking at this point. Santorum, having managed a virtual tie in Iowa, could become the conservative alternative to Mitt with a similar performance in the Palmetto State. And a strong showing could help Gingrich dispel the perception that he’s staying in the race just to exact revenge on Romney. Still, even if Romney loses South Carolina, he’ll still be in a strong position to win Florida 10 days later and to use his war chest to win a war of attrition.

The question that hangs over the Fox debate is whether the assault on Romney as a heartless job killer has run its course. Perry has apparently dropped his “vulture capitalist” line about Romney’s 15-year stint at Bain, and Gingrich has zigged and zagged so often it’s hard to keep track. The half-hour video King of Bain, financed by the pro-Gingrich PAC Winning Our Future, has been awarded four Pinocchios by the Washington Post fact-checker. Financed in part by $5 million from Las Vegas casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson, the PAC is airing South Carolina ads drawn from the film. But Gingrich has called on the PAC to correct the errors or pull the ad, arguing that that's what Romney refused to do when his super PAC was pounding Newt in Iowa. (The groups, at least technically, are independent; here’s betting the Bain ads stay on the air.)

Would Gingrich raise the theme of his Web ad that shows Romney speaking French (“just like John Kerry!”)? Or would that come across as petulant, standing on the stage across from Monsieur Romney?

If things really get desperate, maybe one of the candidates can demand to know why Romney strapped the family dog to the roof of a car for a cross-country trip. It’s old stuff, having appeared in a 2007 Boston Globe piece, but MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and columnist Gail Collins have been having great fun with it.

Newt & Co. need to change the storyline, and fast. If no one knocks Romney off stride at Monday’s debate, his chances are greatly increased for winning South Carolina—and with it, the chance to take on Barack Obama.