Gingrich comes out swinging in South Carolina debate

A night that was supposed to be all about Mitt Romney and Bain Capital ended up being defined by an exchange between our own Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich.

Williams challenged Gingrich for his statements calling President Obama a "food stamp president" and advocating that kids learn the work ethic by doing, for instance, janitorial work at schools. Gingrich has thrived throughout the debate season on combat with moderators and Williams was straying into his wheelhouse. A righteously ticked Gingrich referred to Williams as "Juan," and proceeded to light up the auditorium in the most memorable moment of the night.

On the hiring kids to work odd jobs at school, Gingrich explained that it's practical and good for the kids, thundering: "Only the elites despise earning money."

He noted that the use of food stamps has spiked under President Obama. "I know among the politically correct," Gingrich jabbed, "you aren't supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."

He ended with a ringing endorsement of the promise of the Declaration of Independence for all people and vowed to continue to come up with ideas to help people "learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn someday to own the job." Bret Baier could barely be heard going to the break over the sustained standing ovation.

It was the kind of answer only Newt Gingrich could give. He was quick on his feet and reached for a philosophical depth not available to most politicians, equally pungent and inspiring. As a general matter, at a time when he needs a boost, Gingrich overshadowed all the other non-Romney candidates and showed an ability to connect that the frontrunner lacks.

(Full disclosure: My magazine, National Review, has been very critical of Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul, and favorable toward Romney and Rick Santorum.)

As was widely expected, the debate started with a discussion of Romney's record at Bain.

The former Massachusetts governor was at his unflappable best at parrying Gingrich and Perry on his business background, and especially strong in using the failure of one Bain-backed steel company to hit at China's trade practices while highlighting the success of another.

However, Romney seemed evasive when Santorum pressed him on his position on restoring voting rights for felons. He then gave a cringe-inducing answer on whether he'll release his tax returns, an issue he had ignored when it first came up. When pressed on the issue, he stumbled his way through a nervous-seeming answer that amounted to a definite maybe.

Romney got back on track later in the debate when he was on ground he had plowed many times already in prior sessions. All in all, he was so-so, good enough not to make a catastrophic error, poor enough that he hardly locked up South Carolina.

Rick Perry had the best night of anyone besides Newt. He must enjoy the home cooking in a Southern primary, or in honor of his g-dropping comfort, maybe I should say home cookin'.

He let it all hang out, saying South Carolina is “at war” with the federal government, calling the Turkish government terrorists, and got warm, appreciative responses to almost all of his answers. Mired way back in the pack, with other non-Romney candidates more plausible than he is at this point, it's not clear that it will matter much.

Santorum was solid, but didn't shine. He got embroiled in disputes that seemed much too minute on policy, with Romney (felon voting rights) and Paul (liability for gun manufacturers). He attacked Gingrich from the left on private Social Security accounts. Through the luck of the draw, the questions to him seemed to put him on the defensive or not give him an opportunity to tee off. He needs to overtake Gingrich for second in the polls in South Carolina to blunt the Speaker's argument that he's the most potent anti-Romney. The debate didn't help his cause.

A number of commentators think Ron Paul hurt himself with his forthright opposition to defense spending and his heterodox views on foreign policy. But those positions haven't hurt him yet as he reliably scoops up about 20 percent of the vote.

As the debate is picked over during the next 24 hours, Newt's performance will be magnified as his tussle with Juan Williams is replayed. The speaker probably got the most he could have hoped for in any one debate by creating the impression again that it's a Newt-Romney race. The voting Saturday will tell whether that sense is fleeting or endures.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review and a Fox News contributor.