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Analysis: Winners and Losers of South Carolina Debate

John Moore/Getty Images(CHARLESTON, S.C.) -- Who came out on top during Thursday night's GOP debate in Charleston, S.C.?

By the looks of it, the CNN-sponsored resulted in two winners: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

Thursday night's debate was Santorum's strongest performance of the entire campaign.  He was confident, polished and substantive.  He was determined to fight Gingrich for the mantle of the “conservative alternative” to Mitt Romney.

But does this give Santorum enough of a boost to win the South Carolina primary?  Probably not.  It does, however, offer him the opportunity to pull in some of the undecided conservative voters and, ultimately, to deny Gingrich a win in the Palmetto State on Saturday.

As for Gingrich, the former speaker dominated the first five minutes of the debate with his scathing attack on moderator John King. 

King opened the debate by asking Gingrich to respond to allegations made by Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne in an interview with ABC News and the Washington Post that Gingrich encouraged her to enter into an open marriage.  The question was an invitation for Gingrich to do what he does best -- chastise the media.

Gingrich got the crowd on their feet with lines like this one: “I’m am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

Romney, for his part, fell right in the middle.  Despite his confidence and poise, his halting answer on releasing his tax records elicited audible boos from the audience.  Given the fact that this issue has dominated the race for the last week, it is surprising that he has yet to come up with a solid answer on this.

Moreover, Romney continues to look uncomfortable when he tries to downplay his considerable wealth.  But, the fact that Gingrich and Santorum both turned in solid performances Thursday night means there’s still a strong likelihood that they'll divide the conservative vote and allow Romney to squeak out a win.

Ron Paul, the fourth candidate on stage, came out in the bottom, fading into the background during the debate.  Even Santorum and Gingrich, who have enjoyed sparring with the Texas congressman in previous debates, essentially left him alone Thursday night -- a sign that his relevance in South Carolina is much more limited.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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