Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew at least two standing ovations just moments into the final South Carolina GOP presidential debate tonight when he criticized CNN moderator John King for opening with “trash,” and accused the liberal media of attempting to protect President Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.
King began the two-hour debate from the North Charleston Coliseum with a question on accusations by Gingrich’s ex-wife, Marianne, that the former speaker had asked her for permission to have an “open marriage” after she learned he was having an affair with his current wife, the former Callista Bisek.
“As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it she says that you came to her in 1999 at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?” asked King.
“No, but I will,” snapped Gingrich, who was visibly angered by the question. “I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that.”
Interrupted frequently by applause — including a standing ovation like the one he received at Monday’s debate — Gingrich strongly denied the accusation and said that he offered to give ABC News the names of “several” friends who knew him at the time he was married to his ex-wife and would support his contention that the story is false.
“Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” he said. The audience roared.
Gingrich also pointed to support from his two daughters. “My two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it. And I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate,” Gingrich told the host.
The two South Carolina debates this week appear to have done more to narrow the GOP field than either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary as Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign hours before Thursday’s debate and former Utah Gov. and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman suspended his campaign on Monday — hours before that debate.
Prior to the start of Thursday’s event, host King noted the dwindling number of podiums on the debate stage. “We had five in here at sun-up this morning. We’re down to four now,” he told viewers on CNN, which hosted the event. “That’s a little bit more cozy. There were seven candidates when I moderated back in June. There have been eight candidates at some of the debates. Now we’re down to just four.”
Gingrich surged ahead of Romney in four separate polls based largely on his performance in Monday’s debate, positioning him to not only do well in South Carolina but also in the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
Noted pollster and author Scott Rasmussen told Newsmax.TV earlier on Thursday that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s appeal as the “inevitable nominee” appears to be starting to wane based largely on Gingrich’s debate performance.
Pressed by King to weigh in on whether the accusations by Marianne Gingrich should be an issue in the campaign, his rivals also appeared supportive — if not uncomfortable — with the line of questioning.
“I am a Christian too and I thank God for forgiveness,” replied former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is now believed to have edged out Romney by 34 votes in the final tally in last month’s Iowa caucuses.
“But these are issues of our lives and what we did in our lives. They’re issues of character for people to consider. But the bottom line is those are things for everyone in this audience to look at. And they’re going to look at me — look at what I’ve done in my private life and personal life, unfortunately. And what I say is that this country is a very forgiving country. This country understands that we are all fallen and I’m very hopeful that we will be judged by that standard and not by a higher one on the ultimate day.”
Like Gingrich, his chief rival heading into Saturday’s critical vote, Romney also appeared to be angered by the question. “John let’s get on to the real issues is all I’ve got to say,” he said to applause.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul used the opportunity to lash out at the media. “I think too often all of us are on receiving ends of attacks from the media,” he told the debate audience. “It’s very disturbing because sometimes they’re not based on facts and we suffer the consequences.
“You know, sometimes it reminds me of this idea of getting corporations out of running campaigns but what about the corporations that run the media?” he asked to applause. “The people have to sort this out but I think setting standards are very important, and I’m very proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight.”