It was sad to see Jon Huntsman leave the Presidential race this morning, because it means Stephen Colbert can’t crow about his lead over Huntsman in at least one South Carolina poll. But Huntsman was undoubtedly relieved he didn’t have to stand on-stage Monday night to face the most raucous, roused-rabble audience of any Republican debate held thus far.
The crowd attending the Fox News/Wall Street Journal-sponsored debate cheered their support of U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Afghan bodies – most of the five candidates heaped scorn upon the Obama administration’s condemnation of this act – and the people in the seats hailed lustily the history lesson offered by “Professor” Newt Gingrich: “Andrew Jackson knew what to do with his enemies – he killed them.” Soon after, the audience booed Ron Paul for suggesting that “we should practice the Golden Rule in foreign policy.” The crowd seemed divided, unsure of whom to hoot, over a question about restoring voting rights for felons who have served their sentences. For the record: Rick Santorum is in favor of doing so; Mitt Romney is not.
It was a wild, schizo crowd. They yelled their approval of Rick Perry’s suggestion that America should “go to zero on foreign aid.” The audience showed a nasty streak in the booing Fox questioner Juan Williams
for asking Gingrich, “You [have] said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?” The jeers that erupted the second Williams uttered the phrase “black Americans” was chilling on this Martin Luther King Day. Gingrich didn’t help matters much when he said a bit later, “Barack Obama has put more people on food stamps than any president in history.” CORRECTION: The boos that erupted during Juan Williams questions to Gingrich actually occurred a few minutes later in the debate, not to the question I originally cited, but to this one from Williams: “The suggestion you made was about the lack of a work ethic; my e-mail account and Twitter account are inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities.” It was here that boos and catcalls could be heard. Williams pressed on: “You saw some of this reaction in your visit to a black church in South Carolina when you referred to President Obama as ‘the food stamp President.’ It sounds as though you are seeking to belittle people.” More boos greeted this observation, before Gingrich could reply. I stand by my characterization of the booing as chilling.
Smelling the blood in the air, Romney, as he frequently can seem to do, adjusted the tone of his rhetoric. He moved away, this night, from the calmly “Presidential” air he’s trying to maintain to distinguish himself from the intensity of Ron Paul and the loftiness of Gingrich. Romney heard himself saying, in response to a foreign policy question, “The right thing for Osama bin Laden was the bullet in the head that he received.” No one here is mourning the death of bin Laden, but the graphic aspect of the image had a distinctive tang of audience-pandering this evening.
Romney also condemned the half-hour attack on him, “When Mitt Romney Came To Town,” released by a Gingrich super PAC, as “the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.” It was a light laugh line in a night that was heavy with malice – not from the candidates, but their supporters. Moderator Bret Baier might have done a bit more to try and quell the mob.