Romney's rivals hope to catch a wave in Myrtle Beach debate

The State (Columbia, S.C.)January 16, 2012 

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach is likely to be the most important one yet for both South Carolina and the national Republican Party.

With frontrunner Mitt Romney leading in new S.C. polls and wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire under his belt, South Carolina’s primary is likely the last chance the others candidates have to halt his march to the GOP nomination.

“If Romney wins South Carolina, I think the game’s over,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, a Charleston Republican, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “This is the last stand for many candidates.”

Tonight’s debate is a key way S.C. Republicans will gather information to choose a candidate.

Nearly 7 million viewers nationwide watched Fox News’ last debate, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“People are finally tuning in,” said Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party that is a co-sponsor of the debate along with Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. “There is so much media attention now, and we’re getting over that hump of people saying, ‘Yeah, ho hum.’”

Candidates who do not perform well in this and a subsequent CNN debate Thursday could see their presidential hopes dashed.

That likely includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who considered dropping out of the race after a disappointing finish in Iowa but ultimately decided to push on to South Carolina, where his Southern roots and jobs-creation record was anticipated to sway voters.

Perry led S.C. polls after announcing his candidacy in Charleston but plunged to single-digit ratings after dismal debate performances. That includes a November debate in Michigan during which Perry forgot the name of the Department of Energy.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum needs the state’s evangelical and social conservatives to prove his virtual tie with Romney in Iowa was no fluke. Santorum needs a Palmetto State bounce to catapult him into Florida for the next primary, on Jan. 31.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich, a Georgia native, has campaigned heavily in the state since last summer and has called the coming days leading up to the primary “one of the most important weeks in the history of the GOP.”

Romney’s debate performances have been focused and polished and, S.C. politicos say, a continuation of that performance level will reassure voters he is the one to take the fight to President Barack Obama in November.

Bret Baier, anchor of “Special Report with Bret Baier” on Fox News, said he is taking his job of moderating tonight’s debate seriously.

“These debates have been very important in this race and have really moved the needle in terms of who is leading,” said Baier, who got his TV start in 1991 at a Beaufort TV station and whose father lives in Hilton Head.

To prepare for the debates, Baier and his team are polishing questions.

“We’re trying to prepare for how candidates will answer things. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s a lot like preparing to cross-examine a witness,” Baier said. “We try to avoid the talking points and dig down and get substantive answers.”

While debate questions will run the gamut, Baier said many will be pegged for S.C. viewers.

“They’ll be a lot of focus on the economy and some specific focus on South Carolina and how your state is dealing with tough times,” Baier said, referring to the state’s 9.9 percent unemployment rate.

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