Mitt Romney's Republican challengers gave him all they could in a debate in South Carolina on Monday night.
With the Palmetto State's Primary just a few days away now, Saturday, Romney's lead is only increasing in the most recent polls and the Monday night debate was one of their last, best chances to dent his armor. A Romney victory, particularly a convincing one as indicated in the polls, could make Romney the presumptive nominee before the GOP presidential primary even advances to Florida.
Anna Sale, a political reporter for It's a Free Country, said Newt Gingrich was without question the crowd favorite.
"He whipped the crowd into a frenzy more than half a dozen times, at one point getting a standing ovation" she said.
But Romney, she said, did his best to answer the attacks leveled on him, though sometimes he sidestepped the issues with half-truths or misleading statements. For example, when declining to discuss his record at Bain Capital, he said it was out there to be reviewed. In general, that's not true, Sale said.
"The other candidates were successful in getting Romney to say he will release his tax records, probably in April. No time soon, but probably in April," she said.
Ron Christie, a Republican political strategist, said if Gingrich can make a strong, second-place finish in South Carolina, he could survive to take on Romney head-to-head in Florida.
Rep. Ron Paul, who came out of both Iowa and New Hampshire with a strong showing, struggled to resonate with voters in South Carolina. He was even booed at the debate Monday night when suggesting the United States have a "Golden Rule" when it comes to foreign policy.
"Those boos just echoed throughout the audience," Sale said. "Ron Paul has a difficult time selling his foreign policy views to the voters of South Carolina. It bears repeating, South Carolina is a Republican state. New Hampshire and Iowa, both swing states. The reddest of the red meat is what sells down here."
Rick Perry also stuck a stake in the ground on the issue of federal scrutiny of voting rights issues. He said Texas was being attacked by the federal government over its Congressional redistricting maps. But he drew the loudest applause when he brought the issue to South Carolina.
"South Carolina is at war with this federal government and this administration," Perry said, during the debate, perhaps evoking Civil War imagery.
South Carolina's new voting restrictions are being challenged by federal officials.
Christie said Perry was trying to position himself as the states' rights presidential candidate, a potential differentiation from the other conservative candidates.
"I don't really buy into the notion that this is a Republican party that's having problems with race," Christie said. "A few stray comments, but overall not indicative of where we stand as a party."
Ultimately, Christie said Romney came through the debate relatively unscathed, and put himself in a good position not only to win in South Carolina, but in Florida and beyond as well.