As the fight for the Republican presidential nomination now moves on to the Jan. 31 Florida primary, the 2012 phenomenon of the televised debate has elevated to a political art form playing to voters' prejudices and hates.
Nothing has been more illustrative than the way the crafty and cunning Newt Gingrich turned the opening question in Thursday's debate in South Carolina into an attack on everybody's favorite whipping boy -- the news media.
CNN moderator John King, a former Associated Press ace schooled in balanced reporting, asked Mr. Gingrich about his second wife's new allegation that he had asked for an "open" marriage while he was in a (later acknowledged) adulterous affair with the woman who became his third wife.
Hell hath no fury to compare to Mr. Gingrich's scathing response: "I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that. ... To take an ex-wife and make it [the allegation] two days before the primary a significant question in a primary campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
His former wife Marianne, in an interview with The Washington Post, had just come up with something she obviously considered just as despicable. She wondered how Newt could ask her for a divorce "and within 48 hours give a speech on family values and talk about how people treat people," citing a Gingrich speech aired on C-SPAN.
But the live audience in North Charleston, assembled by the cosponsoring Republican State Committee, erupted in wild cheers and applause. The clear consensus was that Mr. Gingrich had put in their place what the late Spiro Agnew once called the "nattering nabobs of negativism."
More than the ire Mr. Gingrich unleashed at the question was the manner in which the former House speaker, known for lecturing the press on its manners, fielded the inflammatory query so spontaneously, real or feigned. In that one opening blast, he also offered a clear contrast with rival candidate Mitt Romney's continued defensiveness as a debater, recently marked by awkward and even damaging responses.
In an election cycle in which Mr. Romney has dragged his feet on releasing his income-tax returns and admitted as much in the debates, Mr. Gingrich also showed his acuity by releasing his own returns two hours before the debate, thus quickly upstaging Mr. Romney on the point. Why was his rival waiting until April when the returns are due, Mr. Gingrich asked, when South Carolinians could see them and judge before voting in Saturday's primary?
The former speaker's talent for thinking on his feet added support to his argument that he is best suited to debate President Barack Obama in the fall. Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and Rick Santorum all have repeatedly said the ability is critical to choosing the nominee, and polls of Republican voters indicate that it is uppermost in their minds in assessing the GOP field.
Even before Saturday's primary results were in, it was clear that Mr. Gingrich's sharpened debate performances in the Palmetto State had bolstered his contention that the Republican Party needed a "true" conservative rather than, as he put it, "a timid moderate from Massachusetts" to take on Mr. Obama.
In the week remaining before the Florida primary, the question of which candidate best reads public sentiment could be a factor in the outcome. These confrontations have a history of exposing debaters' tin ears to the vox populi, most recently seen in voter responses to Mr. Romney's obtuse references to his wealth.
His jocular offer to make a $10,000 bet when a sawbuck might be all the average guy at the corner saloon might wager, and his observation that the more than $370,000 he made for speaking engagements was "not very much," wouldn't square with most Americans. Especially not with millions of them out of work or struggling to pay the mortgage or put food on the table.
Without the 2012 debate phenomenon, Mr. Gingrich might not have had the opportunity to tap into the beat-the-press mentality that runs rampant these days. And Mr. Romney might have avoided public display of his deafness to how the rich are different from the rest of us.
Former longtime Baltimore Sun writer Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.