The GOP debates have come to a close in South Carolina.  As Rick Perry resigned from the presidential primaries, he left an endorsement for Newt Gingrich, turning the pressure on for the last four candidates to make a significant mark in the hearts and minds of voters in the Palmetto State.

Thursday’s debate opened with CNN moderator John King referencing recent allegations made by Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife in an ABC interview, in which she says could destroy Newt’s campaign.  When King asked the former Speaker of the House if he wanted to take some time to respond to the claims, an angered but undaunted Gingrich replied, “No. But I will.”

“The destructive nature of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for office, and I’m appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” said Gingrich as the audience rose and applauded.

Rick Santorum, emboldened by the announcement of his official victory in Iowa, aggressively engaged Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich as he sought to gain momentum and escape from 4th place in South Carolina.  He raised the issue of Romney’s electability versus Obama, citing the similarities between the President’s healthcare plan and Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare mandate.  Santorum also hammered Gingrich who had called for the former Pennsylvania senator to drop out of the race stating that, “these are not cogent thoughts.”

Newt Gingrich kept level-headed and well composed throughout the course of the night, despite the week’s headlines.  He stated that he would repeal the Dodd-Frank bill, modernize ports in Georgetown and Charleston, and overhaul the Army Corp of Engineers in response to a question that asked for three programs that would improve America’s circumstances.  When asked about illegal amnesty he expressed his desire to keep English as the “official language of Government,” control the border, as well as streamline the immigration/deportation process.

Mitt Romney, who has consistently hovered at the top of South Carolina polls, made his best attempt to keep the focus of the debate on challenging President Obama.  However, his inconsistency in statements and implemented policy was brought to light, yet again.  He managed to deflect some of the criticism, but was still heavily challenged by Gingrich on his two-faced healthcare plan, in which the system paid for abortions while Romney touted his good rating with the Massachusetts Pro-Life Family Association.  Romney also downplayed Gingrich’s stated association with President Reagan.

The Governor stayed on point and asserted his determination to win as he focused on competing with President Obama in 2012 election.  In perhaps the most rousing moment, Romney stated that, “we cannot balance the budget on the backs of our military,” said Romney passionately in a reference to Obama’s recent proposed military cuts, to which he received heavy applause.

One of the most interesting moments of the debate was when the audience raucously hollered at the moderator like NFL fans at a referee upon his neglect to allow Ron Paul a response to a question regarding abortion.  This is an indicator of Paul’s continuing ever-devoted and ardent supporters.  Paul made an effort to clearly communicate his stance, but pulled the reigns in on his prior foreign policy statements, citing economic motivations for ending foreign subsidies rather than golden rule morality.  He gave unique perspectives on the healthcare crisis and veteran treatment in America while recalling his experience as a doctor.

Romney managed to avoid going on the offensive with his counterparts, but he needs to be less awkward and stiff in his responses to attacks.  Santorum did an excellent job distinguishing himself from the competition and honing in on their vulnerability, but went slightly overboard when he misinterpreted statements made by Ron Paul.  Paul responded by saying that Santorum was “overly sensitive.”  Newt Gingrich remained sharp-witted and edgy in his responses; he’ll have to be prepared to deflect more criticism resulting from his ex-wife’s ABC interview.  Ron Paul still has a strong core of voters behind him, but he is going to have to improve his clarity in communicating his intended policy and make every effort to land a good soundbite.

Only time will tell.

Stephan Yenca :: Point Park University :: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania :: @SYenca