5 Takeaways From The GOP's South Carolina Debate : It's All Politics While his rivals scored points against Mitt Romney, none seemed to do anything to upend his candidacy. So the former Massachusetts governor still seemed to have a good shot at winning South Carolina, a state which has voted for every nominee since 1980.
NPR logo 5 Takeaways From The GOP's South Carolina Debate

5 Takeaways From The GOP's South Carolina Debate

For the five remaining Republican presidential candidates, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was just another workday as they tried to improve their chances for an impressive showing in Saturday's critical South Carolina primary.

A decisive win by front-runner Mitt Romney would probably spell the end of the race for at least one and maybe more of his rivals. So Monday night's Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach was one of the last opportunities for his competitors for the nomination to make the winner of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary seem less like the inevitable nominee.

On that score, while his rivals scored points against him, none seemed to do anything to upend his candidacy, and Romney, for his part, committed no major gaffes. So the former Massachusetts governor still seemed to have a good shot at winning South Carolina, a state which has voted for every eventual Republican nominee since 1980.

But his two strongest challengers in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, had solid performances that could attract some voters to their ranks before the weekend.

That said, here's some of what we'll remember, at least for a few hours, about the King Day Myrtle Beach debate:

Romney fumbled the tax-return question: For weeks, Romney has been asked about releasing his personal tax returns like other leading candidates have done in past election cycles.

Romney has resisted, with many observers guessing that his resistance could spring from the very real possibility that the superwealthy Romney's effective tax rate could be 15 percent, far lower than the rate at which middle-class Americans pay their taxes.

You would have thought Romney would have already worked out a straightforward answer to the question of whether and when he would release his tax returns.

He apparently hadn't, however, and it showed. He gave what was one of his most convoluted answers of any debate, leaving the impression that he might release them in April but then saying "time will tell" and then indicating that he was only considering releasing them because "we're showing a lot of exposure at this point," a campaign vulnerability. That sounded a lot like a variation of his infamous: "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake."

Santorum outdebated Romney: Early in the debate, Santorum outpointed Romney, and by a large margin, when he rhetorically duked it out with the former governor over an ad a pro-Romney superPAC hit Santorum with.

In the ad, the pro-Romney superPAC accused Santorum of, while in Congress, voting for a bill that would have restored voting rights to convicted felons once they had fully paid their debt to society.

The back and forth got a bit into the weeds, but Santorum essentially put Romney on the spot by asking him if he would forever disenfranchise such citizens. After dancing around a bit, Romney said he would only deny restoration of voting rights to those convicted of violent crimes, essentially agreeing in major part with the former senator.

Santorum seized on the fact that it was MLK Day and that, as such, it was especially important to have the discussion about restoring the voting rights of citizens, particularly African Americans who are disproportionately imprisoned on nonviolent drug offenses.

Score one for Santorum, who carries the hopes of much of the evangelical community or, more accurately, its leaders who over the weekend chose him as the conservative candidate to rally around in a bid to stop Romney.

Gingrich isn't Mr. Sensitivity on racial issues: Juan Williams of Fox News elicited one of the debate's most indelible moments when he asked the former speaker if he couldn't see that saying that black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps, and that poor kids lack a work ethic was insulting to many people, and not just to African Americans.

"No, I don't see that," Gingrich said, getting one of the evening's loudest ovations. Of course, there was some irony in that Williams, who caused a controversy in 2010 when he said people in traditional Muslim garb made him nervous on airplanes, was demanding sensitivity from Gingrich.

Gingrich took the opportunity to lash out at liberals, intimating that they opposed poor people getting jobs or even earning incomes at all, which can only be believed by people who either don't know many liberals or only know those best defined as extreme or fringe.

When Williams pressed Gingrich, the former speaker resorted to one of his favorite charges: that President Obama is the "most successful food stamp president in history."

Of course, that probably has more than anything else to do with the nation still recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression, food stamps not existing in the 1930s and the U.S. population being significantly larger than during previous major economic downturns.

The South Carolina audience, which was one of the most vociferous of all the debate crowds, ate up Gingrich's pushback, demonstrating that though the state may have a black Republican congressman (Rep. Tim Scott) and an Indian-American governor, racially themed messages can still get some white voters' blood stirred up.

Paul is the total opposite of Romney: If the Massachusetts governor is suspected of saying whatever he thinks the voters he's trying to appeal to want to hear, the Texas congressman can never be accused of that.

In a debate with a number of lively moments, some of the most energetic came when Paul said perhaps the U.S. should consider a foreign policy and national security version of the Golden Rule: "Don't do to other nations what we don't want them to do to us. We endlessly bomb these countries then we wonder why they get upset with us?"

That drew some of the loudest boos from some in the audience of the evening, supporters of a more muscular U.S. posture in the world.

But when Paul added that the U.S. should stop "warmongering" and bring its troops home from overseas deployments, his supporters in the audience cheered and clapped.

It was the one moment that demonstrated why the conventional wisdom is that Paul won't get the nomination.

But it also demonstrated why Paul's admirers remain so steadfast. For them, he's a refreshing change — a politician willing to challenge his party's orthodoxy.

Rick Perry makes few friends in Turkey: In what would have been a major gaffe if it mattered, which it doesn't since he's so far back in the pack, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Turkey is led by Islamic terrorists.

That assertion came as a surprise to many, probably not the least the Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His Justice and Development Party is socially conservative and has been called Islamist-leaning by Western journalists, but that's a label party officials themselves haven't embraced.

The Turkey statement wasn't the only one by the Texas governor to raise eyebrows. Sounding the states' rights theme, which is one of his favorites, he also declared that the federal government is at war with South Carolina and that the Obama administration is at war with religion.

Perry has hoped all along to be the candidate of the Tea Party movement and Christian evangelicals. But while they have been desperate for a candidate to rally behind, they're not so desperate as to rally behind him.

With Jon Huntsman dropping out of the race Monday and endorsing Romney after coming in third in New Hampshire, a state where he staked it all, the question is who is most likely to drop out next after South Carolina?

The educated guess is that it will be Perry who, like Huntsman, has staked everything on an early primary state — in his case South Carolina — but has very high odds against seeing his gamble pay off.