The final Republican presidential debate before tomorrow’s South Carolina primary found Newt Gingrich forced to defend his personal and public lives and Rick Santorum repeatedly on the attack against his rivals.
In the debate’s opening moments last night Gingrich chastised CNN moderator John King for starting off with a question about allegations surfacing earlier in the day that he had once asked for an “open marriage” with his second wife.
The former U.S. House speaker then faced attacks on his ethics, policy positions and claims of accomplishments from Santorum and Mitt Romney. Gingrich has been surging in polls ahead of South Carolina’s primary, threatening the lead Romney enjoyed and presenting a hurdle to Santorum’s campaign.
“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said in a comment directed at King that drew applause from the debate’s audience in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Earlier in the evening, ABC News had broadcast a portion of an interview with Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne Gingrich, who told the network that in the 1990s her then-husband asked for an “open marriage” during an affair with former congressional aide and current wife, Callista.
“Every person in here has had someone close to them go though painful things,” Gingrich said in the debate. “To take an ex-wife and make it two days before a primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Gingrich said his two daughters had written to ABC and said the network’s report, which aired in full later on its “Nightline” program, was wrong and should be pulled.
“I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate,” he said. “The story is false.”
King asked the three other Republican candidates on the stage whether they thought it should be a campaign issue.
Such issues are ones “of character for people to consider,” said Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. “But the bottom line is those are things for everyone in this audience to look at.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, said the conversation should move on.
“John, let’s get on to the real issues is all I got to say,” he said.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas said all of the candidates have faced attacks and incorrect news stories, adding, “I think setting standards is very important, and I’m very proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight.”
Gingrich, 68, has previously apologized for his infidelity.
Santorum and Gingrich were especially combative with one another, as they sought to become the primary alternative to Romney.
Santorum, 53, said he doesn’t want to have to worry about what his party’s presidential nominee is going to say next. Gingrich sometimes has a “worrisome moment,” Santorum said, raising concerns “that something’s going to pop.”
“We can’t afford that in a nominee,” Santorum said. “I’m not the most flamboyant and I don’t get the biggest applause lines here, but I’m steady, I’m solid. I’m not going to go out and do things that you’re going to worry about.”
“Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” Santorum said. “He handles it very, very well.”
Gingrich responded that on that count Santorum was right.
“I think grandiose thoughts,” he said. “This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.”
During the two-hour debate, the Gingrich campaign released the 2010 tax returns for the candidate and his wife, spotlighting an issue that has dogged Romney in recent days.
The records show the Gingrichs owed more than $994,000 in taxes on an adjusted gross income of $3.1 million.
Gingrich called on Romney to release his returns before tomorrow’s primary.
“If there’s anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination,” Gingrich said. “If there’s nothing in there, why not release it?”
Romney said he would release his 2010 returns “when my taxes are completed,” probably in April. He also said he would “probably” release records for previous years. He said his hesitance in doing so now was because he doesn’t want to give Democrats repeated chances to attack his financial standing.
“I pay a lot of taxes,” Romney said. “I’ve been very successful.”
Paul, 76, said he didn’t plan as of now to release his taxes, saying he would be “embarrassed” by what he described as modest income.
Santorum said he does his own taxes and would release them the next time he is able to sit down at his home computer.
Romney, 64, went after Gingrich’s claims of helping spur job creation as a lawmaker and through working with President Ronald Reagan. Romney said he had read Reagan’s diary and Gingrich was only mentioned once, for having an idea that wasn’t very good.
Santorum went after both Romney and Gingrich on health-care policy. He said the health-care overhaul enacted in Massachusetts during Romney’s governorship was government-run and an “abject failure.”
Santorum also noted that Gingrich previously supported a government requirement to buy insurance, a part of President Barack Obama’s health-care law that has drawn the most fire from Republicans.
“These are two folks who don’t present the clear contrast that I do” with Obama on health care, Santorum said. “I’ve been fighting for health reform, private sector, bottom up, the way America works best, for 20 years, while these two guys were playing footsies with the left.”
Romney, in defending the Massachusetts law, referred to the legislation as “RomneyCare,” a term used by his rivals to compare it to Obama’s overhaul.
Gingrich said he could address the issue of previously supporting an insurance mandate in a debate with Obama.
“I can say, you know, I was wrong and I figured it out; you were wrong and you didn’t,” Gingrich said.
On combating illegal immigration, Romney called dealing with it “relatively straightforward compared to the tough issues” the U.S. faces, including competing with China and government spending. He then stressed enforcement programs.
Gingrich also emphasized such programs, saying “you have to first of all control the border.”
He also spelled out his plan for allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. -- an approach Romney once favored but now criticizes.
“I don’t think we’re going to deport grandmothers and grandfathers who have 25 years of networking and relationships in a community,” he said.
He would create a “World War II-style draft board” where local citizens would review such cases and have the power to grant residency permits.
All the candidates criticized the Stop Online Piracy Act, which prompted protests from the technology industry, for potentially censoring content. Still, Santorum said that property rights need to be respected.
Going Too Far
“I agree this goes too far, but the idea that anything goes on the Internet, where did that come from?” Santorum asked.
Until yesterday, it had appeared Romney would be seeking in South Carolina his third straight victory in the Republican race. That changed when Republican officials in Iowa -- who two weeks ago declared Romney an eight-vote winner of the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses -- announced that a recount showed Santorum ahead by 34 votes. With results from eight precincts missing, the officials decided against declaring a victor, though Santorum claimed the win.
Also yesterday, Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich.
“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?” Perry told reporters as he ended his candidacy. “There is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption.”
Romney won the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary by 16 percentage points over his nearest rival, Paul, and hopes to retain his status as the Republican front-runner in South Carolina. A win in the state would give him momentum heading into Florida’s Jan. 31 contest, and a victory there could position him to quickly secure the nomination.
The debate, sponsored by CNN and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, is the 17th in the primary season. Two more are scheduled next week in advance of the Florida voting.