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10.01 pm. A Gingrich triumph. His only concern must be how well Santorum did tonight. Paul performed well, but remains peripheral to the struggle for the orthodox "conservative" candidate. I think Romney is in serious trouble now, and the bottom fell out tonight. He died with that glib response – "maybe" – to the question of whether he'd follow his father's example.

It could well be that this could come down to Romney-Gingrich-Paul. That trio is the end of Republican fusionism.

9.57 pm. Paul's summary: freedom is awesome! Gingrich: Obama is a dangerous Alinsky Manchurian candidate who can only be stopped by my world-historical genius. Romney: Obama is turning us into Europe. Santorum: I'm the real purist right-winger who can defeat Democratic incumbents – and then lose by the biggest margin in history.

9.55 pm. A reader writes:

The thing I noticed about about that exchange about tax returns was Romney's response to the jeering he received from the audience following his ridiculously coy response — "maybe". After being jeered, I noticed Romney smugly raising his eyebrows toward the audience along with a smug grin that seemed to say, "Whatcha gonna do about it?"  
That, to me, is the essence of all of Romney's electoral problems. He seems to believe that he is above criticism, that others have no right to question him. This is why he lies so reflexively and why he acts so petulant during debates when there is any criticism or scrutiny of his ideas or proposals.

9.51 pm. Romney's evasions on his tax returns befuddle me, because if there's nothing wrong in them, except huge amounts of money and a low 15 percent tax, it's a blow in a populist time, but not exactly fatal. A reader writes:

Romney's campaign has been extremely careful when questioned about his Cayman-based, Bain-related assets. If his tax returns show no foreign capital gains on his 1040 and he has tens of millions of dollars in foreign assets, it will look terrible. More important than avoiding taxes, it's evidence that he's not willing to invest in America and bring his money back home.

Hadn't thought of that but I'm not an expert in these matters.

9.40 pm. And now the last brutal death throe as Newt savages Romney on abortion. Mitt responds by using the phrase "scintilla of truth." And then he has to get in the weeds of his abortion record. Every minute he speaks about this in this forum he loses votes.

Then he says this: "Now is not the time to question someone's words."

Really? In a presidential primary? When on earth would be the right time to question someone's words. Tha arrogance there is striking. "I'm not used to defending myself against attacks on my character." Again: really? Hasn't that been the continuing thread of his entire career?

Then Santorum picks Romney's Christianist carcass clean. Romney does his best to defend himself – but this was a very very rough patch.

9.37 pm. The way Ron Paul moved from the Af-Pak border to the Mexican border – and used his anti-war position to buttress a strong case for controlling illegal immigration – was very very deft. And this time, it worked with the crowd.

9.30 pm. Gingrich is in the zone now: a soliloquy of fresh-sounding ideas which would probably be disastrous, woven in with dog whistles of anti-illegal-immigrant sentiment. Speeding up deportations is never going to lose votes among non-Hispanic South Carolinians. One in 20 South Carolinians is Latino. One in three is black. Did you get that impression from watching this debate?

9.26 pm. An actually quite sweet break in the segment of mistakes. Santorum was close to moving; Romney actually pulled off a successful, self-deprecatory joke. Paul basically conceded that he can be too quirky and bubbly. He shouldn't change a thing.

9.20 pm. A reader writes:

Am I nuts, or did Romney provide a perfect defense of Obamacare? It’s popular in Massachusetts, it hasn’t increased their costs and it’s given more people coverage? And he wants to repeal the same bill that would do that at the national level?

You're not nuts. Romney will simply say anything. And tonight he gave a great defense of the core moderation, private sector emphasis and free market exchanges in Obama's law.

9.17 pm. I love Ron Paul. Of course he was opposed to SOPA before any of the others.

9.15 pm. Gingrich works the anti-Hollywood line into the SOPA debate. He is so on tonight, as he was Tuesday. That was the perfect way to milk that question for maximal political punch. I agree with him as well.

9.12 pm. A reader writes:

You know, in the end, Santorum just doesn’t have the balls to duke it out with Gingrich and Romney. He gets out there and throws that big first shots and they’re good ones, but when he gets hit back, he starts to falter a little. You can see it in his body language. Newt and Romney throw their usual bullshit at him and it’s bullshit, but they do it with their usual arrogance and ego and it starts to overwhelm Santorum. He’s not long for this race.

I think he's had a great night, but when he's good, he's even less likable. Another reader counters:

Watching the last two debates, during which Santorum has had more substantial airtime than he had earlier in the campaign, I am left with this thought:  Were I watching these debates with no knowledge of the Santorum Google problem or of any candidate's supposed policy stances, I would see Santorum as the obvious candidate of choice.  He's working the "compassionate conservative" angle pretty well, I think, and his assholishness comes across as energy, vs. Gingrich who seems like a dick every time he opens his mouth, or Romney who is so very, very plastic.

I think it might be time to take the Santorum surge more seriously.

9.03 pm. Ron Paul says he doesn't want to release his tax returns because he'd be embarrassed over his low earnings. Rommey then just uses desperate anti-Obama rhetoric as a way to distract. When challenged to provide full information now he balks. Man he's having a bad night.

The reason he won't release his taxes is because he's paying 15 percent on income, or because he has so arranged his income to shield a huge amount of it from taxation. It's not as if it's about the sheer money involved – we already know it's about $26 million a year for doing nothing.

Romney then completely flounders in response to John King's brilliant citation of George Romney's position on the matter. And that word – "maybe" – in answer to a direct and simple question is devastating.It not only makes him look shifty; it makes him look as if he doesn't respect his own father's honorable example. Just a dreadful few minutes for Romney.

I may be crazy but I think Romney loses South Carolina after tonight. And that means this thing blows wide open again.

9 pm. Why can't Romney once – just once – directly answer the question asked, instead of insisting on saying what he wants to say first? It's deeply irritating and underlines his too-polished, too arrogant affect. And then he forgets even what the actual question was in the first place. Then he segues into a bizarre attack on Newt's relationship with Reagan. He lost it back there. It's his worst performance yet – at the very moment he needs to deliver his best.

8.55 pm. A truly inspired response from Santorum on the dangers of being led by a man who could say and do anything any time any day. Too risky, in other words. But Gingrich's response was just as effective – reminding everyone of his long history in the movement. Then Santorum gets in the weeds on the politics of 1994 and loses his way in the debate. But he's made a very strong case against Gingrich tonight. Romney and Paul seem side-lined a little right now in this battle for th "conservative" mantle against a fast-sinking Romney.

Funny how this exchange really does show where the new energy is in this campaign.

8.49 pm. A Book of Mormon ad! Yay.

8.48 pm. Buzzfeed says that Newt won the debate in the first five minutes. Theres still some time to go but that's my impression as well. Romney is being flattened tonight. Santorum's brutal, relentless attacks, Newt's ccontempt, Paul's jocular indifference … they all contrast with classic, mindless robo-speak from Mr Plastic. Now Gingrich has ambushed him on his tax returns.

This is what South Carolina always does. It's sometimes necessary to look away before the feeding frenzy ends. But the result is always bloody.

Romney's sinking. He's sinking.

8.44 pm. A classic Gingrich phrase: "Mildly amazing." Classic passive aggression from the "shy boy" who's now so angry he explodes spontaneously. Then Newt tickles the Southern g-spot, by saying that his debating Obama will be a battle between "knowledge" and a "TelePrompTer." I don't think Newt realizes how his contempt and condescension toward Obama is riddled with racism.

8.39 pm. Santorum goes after Romney's jugular on healthcare and his ability to debate Obama on the subject this fall. He's extremely unlikable but his points against Romney's and Gingrich's previous endorsement of the individual mandate.

Then Romney makes the argument that Obamacare is a private-based program – not a big government scheme. It too allows people to keep their insurance if they choose to. Which kinda proves Santorum's point, right?

8.36 pm. Romney hasn't yet told us what would happen when he throws 2.5 million young adults off their parents' insurance. Romney then says that he wants market forces in healthcare, like he did in Massachusetts, and which Obama has adopted in his healthcare proposal. Note that Romney would prevent anyone without insurance who has a pre-existing condition from getting a policy.

Gingrich then rouses the crowd – by attacking the president for wanting to keep young people dependent on their parents.

8.31 pm. Santorum issues a disgusting charge that the commander-in-chief chose to slash defense spending because he doesn't care about veterans. Have there been cuts in the VA? But the depth with which they hate the president is truly striking. Romney's stark lies about defense spending in the last debate have become more generalized then. By the way: here's what's happened to defense spending over the last few decades:

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This is how divorced from reality these people are. Their premises are lies.

8.30 pm. Santorum hones his manufacturing working class economic chops in a very deft and indrect criticism of Romney's kind of capitalism. A very effective performance. They're all on tonight, it seems. But Gingrich's spirited, angry, anti-media rant at the start towers over the rest.

8.20 pm. Gingrich is on a roll – rattling off a list of South Carolina issues, including the port of Charleston. Then he quickly and effectively summarizes a core case against the dodgy practices of Bain Capital. Romney then tries to avoid answering the direct question about Bain and seems to conflate "crony capitalism" with Democrats' relationships with the union.

He does not address the core issue of how you make millions off bankrupting companies. It's good though to recognize, as he does, that he was working not for the employees, but for his wealthy investors.

8.12 pm. Newt's response to the open marriage is turned into a tour de force against the media. He calls John King's questions "as close to despicable as I can imagine." The crowd loves it. The first response as to whether he wanted to talk about it: "No, but I will." Perfect. Then he rounds on King and gets another standing ovation. I think he may have won the primary tonight with that response.

Romney essentially says: me too. Paul attacks media corporations. Santorum squirms. Advantage: Gingrich. But one might recall that Gingrich was the person behind pursuing issues in Bill Clinton's private life and marital problems. He showed no pity then.

8.11 pm. Santorum plugs his Iowa victory; And Paul plugs his military service – the last ex serviceman on the stage.

8.06 pm. A terrific, crisp, moving military rendering of the national anthem.

8.05 pm Paul meanders onto the stage; Newt waddles; Romney strides; Santorum struts.

8.04 pm. Another rowdy crowd. Woohoo! Irritating bullshit intros. Groan.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty.)