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Gingrich reminds Romney he still has a hard punch

Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Newt Gingrich had a performance Monday night that reminded people why he was once the Republican frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

In a way, he had a built-in advantage--with candidates having 90 seconds to answer questions (instead of the usual 60), the most loquacious candidate is bound to do well.

Gingrich started slow in his attempt to answer a rat-a-tat-tat series of questions from the moderators on his criticism of Mitt Romney on Bain Capital. He said he wouldn't have had to bring up another candidate's "record" if he hadn't had $3.5 million in ads run against him in Iowa. Really? He wouldn't have brought up Romney's record?

But that slow start didn't last long. Gingrich had a strong answer on unemployment and, moments later, parried a very tough question from Juan Williams on race--an answer that won him a standing ovation. He added a quick dose of empathy--noting that his daughter had a job as janitor when she was 13 years old--and continued with a tough by-the-bootstraps answer on employment.

Later, during a follow-up on a question about negotiating with the Taliban, Gingrich quoted a South Carolina favorite son to great effect. "Andrew Jackson had a good idea what to do with our enemies: Kill them."

Gingrich also decisively won an exchange on Social Security and bested Mitt Romney in a head-to-head exchange on super PACs with what might have been the line of the night. When Romney suggested that he couldn't control what his super PAC does--a technicality Gingrich acknowledged--Gingrich turned that reality into a liability. If Romney cannot get a super PAC supporting him to listen, Gingrich argued, "makes you wonder how much influence he'd have if he were president."

Romney was less sure-footed than he has been in recent debates. He struggled on a question from the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib on Bain, resorting to talking points rather than engaging the substance of the question. He later waffled a question about whether he will release his tax returns, saying he might release them in April but "time will tell."

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Romney disagreed with one of his own top foreign policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss, who has argued that the U.S. will likely need a "negotiated" peace with the Taliban. Romney smacked down that suggestion, dismissing the idea that talks will lead to a productive solution.

Rick Perry had a good night, one that suggests he's more comfortable now that he's not a frontrunner and has nothing to lose. His answers were (mostly) crisp and suggested he'd thought about the issues in a context other than a debate prep session.

The loser of the night was probably Rick Santorum--not because he did anything to damage his candidacy, but because the man he's battling to be the non-Romney candidate had such a good night.

Ron Paul was more comprehensible in explaining his "spending is taxation" argument than he usually is, but he was even more incoherent on foreign policy than usual.

If this was truly a "last chance" debate for the non-Romney candidates, Gingrich seized it. Was it the proverbial game-changer? It's still hard to see how anyone overcomes Romney's considerable advantages, in organization and what seems to be growing acceptance among conservatives. And Gingrich has two obstacles: the way he's campaigned over the past two weeks and Romney.

Bio: Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer for The Weekly Standard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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