Will The Real Anti-Romney Ever Stand Up? (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - It can't be easy being one of Mitt Romney's rivals at the moment. Try as they might, even some of their best arguments against his candidacy seem to fall short of the mark.

Romney's resilience was on full display on the debate stage last night in Myrtle Beach, S.C. where, less than a week before the primary here, he drew incoming fire for his work at Bain Capital, his refusal - so far - to release his tax returns and for not issuing stronger condemnations of super PAC ads sponsored by a group with close ties to him.

And even though Romney has had much better debate outings, as ABC's Amy Walter points out, the night did not feature a "game changing event." If one of these candidates really wanted to distinguish himself from Romney, last night was their moment. But with one fewer candidate on the stage, no one managed to do so. That means the ultimate winner, by default, was Romney. http://abcn.ws/xpH1Dj

- Newt Gingrich had a solid outing. Yet, his most memorable exchange was with Fox News moderator Juan Williams, not Romney. Still, some of his sharp lines could infuse his candidacy with momentum heading into Saturday's primary.

- Rick Santorum tried to engage with Romney early on but, as he has done in previous debates, he spent more of his time arguing with Ron Paul over foreign policy.

- Rick Perry, who is in a distant fifth place in South Carolina, took some swings at Romney, but by the middle of the debate his focus wavered to attacking Washington and the Obama administration.

When pressed, many smart South Carolina politicos are putting their money on Romney to win the primary here. it would be an early primary state trifecta that would likely seal the deal for the former Massachusetts governor.

And new national numbers from an ABC News-Washington Post poll back up Romney's successes in the early states. According to ABC pollster Gary Langer, "a vast 72 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now expect Romney to be their nominee - up by 32 points from mid-December. Fifty-seven percent, moreover, call him their best chance to win in November, nearly triple the September level, with a 19-point jump in the last month alone." http://abcn.ws/zJuvso

Here's what the GOP landscape looks like nationally, according to the new poll:

Mitt Romney: 35%

Newt Gingrich: 17%

Ron Paul: 16%

Rick Santorum: 13%

Rick Perry: 9%

On "Good Morning America," ABC's John Berman looked at the GOP contenders' attempts to derail Romney in South Carolina. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/xwXWHV


DID THE CANDIDATES ANSWER OR DODGE? Fox News, the host of last night's debate, partnered with Twitter to ask users whether the candidates answered the questions being put to them or dodged them using the hashtags #answer and #dodge: Here's what they found: "After a slow start and a net #dodge rating for an answer on his recent attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, Gingrich elicited strong #answer ratings for much of the remainder of the debate. His highest #answer peaks came during his comments on unemployment and his reply to Juan Williams about characterizing President Obama as a 'food stamp President.' … While generating the highest total volume of Tweets among the candidates, Romney spent most of the debate with net Twitter user reaction firmly in #dodge territory. The former Massachusetts governor's explanation for not releasing his tax records generated the most significant #dodge reaction, but Romney scored #answer ratings for his replies on Medicare and Social Security reform and his refusal to negotiate with the Taliban." http://bit.ly/z2rS7u


STEPHEN COLBERT ROUND TWO: VOTE FOR HERMAN CAIN. ABC News' Jonathan Karl reports: A new Stephen Colbert Super PAC ad was just released, encouraging South Carolinians to vote for Herman Cain in Saturday's primary:  "He's such an outsider, he is not even running for president." It must be said, however, the Herman Cain in this ad looks an awful lot like … Stephen Colbert. WATCH: http://bit.ly/x5iyWL

RICK SANTORUM GOES NEGATIVE. With just days to go before voters go to the polls in South Carolina, Rick Santorum's campaign has unleashed its first negative ad. Earlier televisions spots focused on his conservative credentials and close family life. This one, however, portrays rival Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama as political clones."Obama supported the Wall Street bailouts… So did Romney," the ad says over photos of the president and the former Massachusetts governor. "Obama gave us radical 'Obamacare,' that was based on 'Romneycare.' Obama's a liberal on social issues. Romney once bragged he's even more liberal than Ted Kennedy on social issues. Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama - when we can unite around Rick Santorum and beat Obama?"  http://abcn.ws/zJIKY9

RON PAUL PREPARES PLAN B. Rep. Ron Paul says he's in it to win it and the campaign boasts that it has a comprehensive strategy in place to ensure that happens. But behind the scenes Campaign Manager Jesse Benton told ABC News' Jason Volack that the team is plotting a back up strategy in case the congressman doesn't pull in enough delegates to become the nominee. If the campaign comes up short at the convention, Benton says the plan is to use all the delegates awarded to Paul as a bargaining chip to force the Republican Party to stick to its limited government platform. Benton says this could include auditing the Federal Reserve and winding back several parts of the Patriot Act, including roving wire taps which he says were originally written with the intent of expiring. "I think it would be wise for the Republican Party to allow them to sun set next time they come up for authorization," said Benton, adding a good portion of the American people are with that.

ROMNEY LEADS THE WAY IN ROBO-CALL BATTLE. The telephones of Republican voters in South Carolina are ringing off the hook this week and more often than not its Mitt Romney or one of his allies on the other end of the line. Some of the automated calls feature Romney's voice while others include the recorded words of top surrogates backing the Massachusetts governor like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. One call voters are receiving this week invites South Carolinians to participate in a conference call with McCain on Friday night - the eve of the state's Jan. 21 primary. Another call targets Rick Santorum and yet another encourages voters to go to the polls on Saturday, emphasizing that Romney is not taking the state for granted. Some of the calls sponsored by the campaign use technology that address individual families by name when someone from the household picks up the phone. And voters in the conservative northern section of the state are hearing the recorded voice of a woman, who according to the Wall Street Journal, "identifies herself as an anti-abortion leader." http://abcn.ws/ycV3SA

WISCONSIN RECALL UPDATE. "After 60 days of fanning out petitions across the state, United Wisconsin, the group organizing the recall effort for Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, will turn in their gathered signatures to the Government Accountability Board of Wisconsin," ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield reports. "Though the group has yet to release a final signature count - that number will not be released until they turn in the signatures United Wisconsin spokeswoman Meagan Mahaffey tells ABC News - it is widely expected that they will hand-in well over the 540,208 names required to hold a recall election. … After the signatures are turned in the Government Accountability Board will have 60 days to verify the signatures, though they have requested additional time. Should the GAB verify that United Wisconsin did submit the 540,208 necessary names, Democrats will have six weeks to hold a primary, followed by an additional four weeks until a general election against Gov. Walker would take place. With these time stipulations in mind, the earliest a recall election would occur is late May 2012. The timing could be pushed back however, should the board be granted additional time to process signatures, or should any lawsuits be filed on either parties behalf." http://abcn.ws/yR9RW2

IN THE NOTE'S INBOX: A message from the government transparency group, the Sunlight Foundation: "The recent New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus clearly shows that super PACs are a game changer for the 2012 election. While their spending on presidential primaries tops $15 million to date, few super PACs have released any information about their donors (most of which is still six months old), choosing instead to delay the disclosure of their 2010 donors until the end of this month due to FEC loopholes. The Sunlight Foundation calls on both Democrats and Republicans to stop serving their self-interest and start acting in the public interest by taking a step in favor of transparency. We propose the Stop Undisclosed Payments in Elections from Ruining Public Accountability in Campaigns Act (a.k.a the SUPERPAC Act) as a step towards addressing the corrupting influence unlimited, secret super PAC money has on our elections and our elected officials.



@ HotlineReid : Boston Globe: Ron Paul has charges taxpayers nearly $52k for first-class flights back to his district

@ llerer : Newt press bus making detour so driver can cast absentee ballot. Won't say who he's voting for though….hmmm… #2012

@jonward11 : I asked Juan Williams if being booed by a largely white audience made him uncomfortable. His answer:  huff.to/A5sE3b

@mviser : Bit confident? Romney playlist in Florence, SC, has "We are the Champions" following "We Will Rock You." Small crowd so far in a ballroom.

@PhilipRucker : I don't think I've seen a Mitt Romney campaign event this sparsely attended since last year.  #WakeUpFlorence


DISPATCHES FROM THE TRAIL. Check out our new political website OTUSNews.com ( www.Otusnews.com) The Note ( http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/the-note/) and ABC News/Politics ( http://abcnews.go.com/politics) and follow our reporters in the field on Twitter:

Newt Gingrich : ABC's Elicia Dover ( @EliciaDover)

Jon Huntsman and: ABC's Susan Archer ( @TheOnlyArcher)

Ron Paul : ABC's Jason Volack ( @Jason_Volack)

Rick Perry : ABC's Arlette Saenz ( @ArletteSaenz)

Mitt Romney : ABC's Emily Friedman ( @EmilyABC)

Rick Santorum : ABC's Shushannah Walshe ( @shushwalshe) and ABC's Russell Goldman ( @GoldmanRussell)


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