The audience at the Fox News debate, a collection of the state's socially conservative primary voters, were a major presence in the Fox News showdown, booing suggestions on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that some of Newt Gingrichs' recent remarks about food stamps were offensive to black people.
"More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history," Gingrich insisted amid a standing ovation from the crowd, which also booed when Juan Williams mentioned Mitt Romney's father was born in Mexico.
But a declaration of war against Romney by Gingrich, in particular, has failed miserably in South Carolina.
An attack ad released by his supporters that delves into Romney's years as head of a private equity firm has been largely discredited, giving Gingrich no boost in the so-called Palmetto State.
Gingrich was facing an added humiliation on Monday in the aftermath of his snubbing by the country's leading evangelicals, who have backed Rick Santorum as the socially conservative candidate they hope can still rally anti-Romney voters and beat the front-runner in Saturday's primary. Most polls have Gingrich and Santorum tied for second well behind Romney.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives faced a couple of tough questions about his crusade to discredit his rival because of his background as a successful entrepreneur in a free enterprise system, a hallmark of the Republican party's ethos.
"I raise questions I think are legitimate questions," Gingrich replied, dismissing critics who suggested he was attacking Romney in a manner similar to how U.S. President Barack Obama would during a general election.
He was also asked to explain his recent statement that African Americans should demand pay cheques instead of food stamps, a remark that prompted black church-goers to ask Gingrich if he was a racist when he attended a service in South Carolina over the weekend.
Few in the crowd in Myrtle Beach, however, had any time for assertions by the African-American Juan Williams, one of the debate's moderators, that Gingrich's remarks were offensive to black people, cheering when the one-time speaker snidely dismissed the suggestion.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meantime, enjoyed one of his best debate performances — admittedly a low bar, given his cringe-worthy stumbles during previous showdowns are thought to have doomed his campaign.
But on Monday night, he was cheered loudly when he declared that the Obama administration is "out of control," and while renewing his insistence that Romney release his income tax returns, as he himself as done.
"We cannot fire our nominee in September," he said.
Later in the debate, Romney said he was not opposed to releasing them, suggesting he'd do so in April.
"If that's been the tradition, I'm not opposed to doing that," said Romney, appearing visibly nervous. "Time will tell."
The debate, the latest in a series of highly rated televised showdowns, got under way just hours after Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Romney.
Despite the minor shot in the arm to his campaign, Romney's trademark easy laughter when under siege from his rivals was all but absent on Monday night.
Indeed, the front-runner seemed rattled throughout most of the showdown, including when fending off an attack from Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who came within a few votes of beating him in the Iowa caucuses.
The men sparred about a Romney ad that attacked Santorum for voting against a motion that would permanently disenfranchise convicted felons — not an issue that was going to win either man any points among South Carolina's socially conservative, law-and-order primary voters.
Nonetheless, the crowd cheered when Santorum ordered Romney to answer the question: Did he support the right of convicted felons to vote, or not?
Romney said he was opposed, strolling into an apparent trap set by Santorum as the one-time senator pointed out that as Massachusetts governor, Romney had made no attempt to change a law that permitted convicted violent felons to vote while still on parole.
Romney found his footing towards the end of the debate, however, when Gingrich yet again maligned his rival's so-called Super PAC for negative ads against him, saying they were unfair and inaccurate.
Romney countered that ads released by Gingrich's Super PAC ads have been both vicious and roundly discredited, quipping that the anti-Bain Capital spot is "the biggest hoax since Big Foot."Suggest a correction