The winner of Monday night's GOP presidential debate is open for debate itself, but if a sampling of crowd reaction afterwards is any indication, Texas Rep. Ron Paul took a step backward with South Carolina voters.
The big issue was Paul's foreign policy, several said. Indeed, some of the biggest boos of the night were reserved for Paul when his stances on military and defense matters failed to be hawkish and interventionist enough for the crowd at Monday night's Fox News/Wall Street Journal/SCGOP debate in Myrtle Beach.
"He can't be trusted with national security issues with our nation," said GOP political activist Deborah Myers of Lexington. "I certainly don't want him to be the one to get the 3 o'clock in the morning phone call. Ron Paul's positions on national security are dangerous."
Leah Reid of Myrtle Beach said she had planned to vote for Paul until she heard more about his foreign policy.
"It's scary," she said. "I don't like that he doesn't feel that we need to take a strong presence against the Middle East, against Al Qaeda. I don't like his position on Osama Bin Laden. Really, it's scary. We are facing major threats and I think we need someone who is a little bit more serious about it."
The winner of the night's debate was a little more murky, though several people interviewed said they believed Newt Gingrich appeared to stand out. Many of those same people, however, remained uncertain his or any other candidate's performance would be enough to beat frontrunner Mitt Romney.
"I think there is still some more issues that need to be resolved to let one [candidate] rise above the crowd," said Dr. Douglas Reid of Myrtle Beach. "I think in the front are still Newt and Romney, and I think that Rick Perry had a better showing tonight than he has had in the past. I think Santorum and Ron Paul are going to fall further behind."
However, Myers took the contrarian view.
"I think there is going to be a big surprise come Saturday," said Myers, who is wavering between supporting either Gingrich or Santorum. "I think conservatives will either coalesce behind Newt, or they will coalesce behind Santorum — and I feel it's going to be Newt."
"I thought Newt came out on top," said Mallory Morris of Myrtle Beach, another undecided voter. "I thought Romney evaded the questions a lot, and I think Perry did well. [But after tonight] I really like Newt."
Leigh Bullard of Raleigh, N.C., another undecided voter, also gave the nod to Newt for the night. "I think he's direct. I think he's quick to answer the question. I think he has facts that match up. I think he had an "A" tonight, and I think he's had an "A" at every single debate."
Robert Denny, Bullard's companion, echoed her sentiments. Until tonight he was undecided, but is now a solid Gingrich lean. "He really speaks his mind. He's right on with what I think."
Before the debate a beaming Curtis Loftis made the rounds in the media room, feeling good about his candidate. Loftis, S.C. State Treasurer, chairs Romney's S.C. campaign, and said he looked forward to a good showing.
"I'm confident but I'm not overconfident," he said. "In politics, you can be a champ today, and a chump tomorrow."
Joel Sawyer, who was Jon Huntsman's state campaign director before the candidate dropped out of the race on Monday, said he believes the state remains Romney's to lose. Despite Huntsman's endorsement of Romney on Monday, Sawyer said he plans to remain neutral throughout the race.
"As long as Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, and Perry are all in this race, then Romney is going to benefit from that," he said.
Very little of the debate focused on social issues, which may have helped Romney, some attendees said.
"I think in South Carolina, in this cycle, you have to establish a baseline of social conservatism to be viable," Sawyer said. "But I don't think this race is going to be won or lost on who is more pro-life than the other guy, or more pro-traditional marriage than the other guy. With that baseline of credibility, people are going to say, 'What are you going to do about jobs, what are you going to do about spending, what are you going to do about the economy?' I think those issues are where it's going to be won or lost."
Second District GOP Congressman Joe Wilson of Springdale said he thinks he knows whom he'll vote for, but demurred when asked. He also diplomatically refrained from picking a winner or loser, though he did say Paul's foreign policy and defense policies simply don't mesh with his own.
"But I've always had foreign policy differences with him," Wilson said. "But I've always appreciated his economic policies."
Meantime, Paul supporter Chris Barczak of Columbia remains firmly in the Paul camp, he said.
"I think he did well. I don't think he got much time. I think in the first 45 minutes he had one question. I was disappointed with that," Barczak said. "But I think that everybody that supports Ron Paul, and peace in general, is happy with his non-intervention policies."
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