Looked to me like a strong night for Newt!....Another standing ovation!
South Carolina Republican debate: Newt Gingrich goes nuclear on media
By ALEXANDER BURNS | 1/19/12 8:35 PM EST Updated: 1/19/12 10:36 PM EST
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Newt Gingrich launched into a tirade against the news media at the top of the Republican primary debate here, blasting one television network for airing a damaging interview with his ex-wife, Marianne, and tearing into another for making it the subject of a question in Thursday night’s forum.
Both Gingrich and Rick Santorum worked to put Mitt Romney, the national GOP front-runner, on the defensive throughout the debate, pressing him on his views on health care, abortion and more as both men tried to gain traction in advance of Saturday’s crucial primary showdown here.
But Gingrich’s early eruption burned away much of the political oxygen for the evening, virtually ensuring that the volatile former House speaker would remain the race’s leading actor in the final days of the South Carolina campaign as well as the star of a super-charged moment of media bashing that will likely earn a spot in primary debate history.
CNN moderator John King directed the first question of the night to Gingrich, asking him if it was true – as Gingrich’s former wife alleged in an interview with ABC News – that he asked for an open marriage in the late 1990s.
Gingrich called that story “false” – and delivered an extended denunciation of both ABC and CNN for engaging Marianne Gingrich in the first place.
“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said. "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 for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
He continued: “My two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that [the interview 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.”
The frontal attack on the news media was a familiar ploy for Gingrich, who has frequently attacked the press in Republican primary debates, earning uproarious applause from GOP voters in the process.
King said after the debate that he and Gingrich had a good conversation afterwards and that there were no hard feelings. But whether pure theater or not, the use of the tactic in Thursday’s debate – a crucial event that came as polls showed Gingrich gaining strength – left the rest of the Republicans with little choice but essentially to give him a pass on the issue. Santorum and Romney declined to comment on Marianne Gingrich’s allegations directly, as did Ron Paul – who tossed in a passing reference to his own, 50-plus-year marriage in the process.
“John, let’s get on to the real issues,” Romney told King.
Santorum said there are “issues of character for people to consider,” but added: “This country is a very forgiving country.”
The Gingrich family drama may have overshadowed other dramatic exchanges in a debate that was contentious from top to bottom. Both Romney and Gingrich – the two leading candidates in South Carolina – found themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism.
For Romney, the challenge was staving off a last-minute surge from Gingrich speaker and a heated offensive from Santorum. For all the others, the goal of the night was gaining late traction against the longtime front-runner.
In the second consecutive debate, Santorum became the evening’s most intense aggressor, going after Romney and Gingrich with almost equal vigor on the issue of health care.
“When he was governor of Massachusetts, he put forward Romneycare, which was not a bottom-up, free-market system,” Santorum said of Romney. “It has been an abject failure and he has stood by it.”
He assailed Gingrich’s past support for an “individual mandate,” arguing: “I’ve been fighting for health reform … for 20 years while these two guys were playing footsie with the left.”
Whether there is still time and space in the GOP primary race for Santorum to gain traction, is unclear. Though the former Pennsylvania senator has consistently handed in strong debate performances and hasn’t balked from taking on Gingrich and Romney, the Palmetto State fight has looked this week like a two-man contest for first place.
Indeed, the strongest challenge to Romney may not have come from Santorum, but rather from the moderator, King, who pushed the former governor on when he will release his personal tax returns – yielding another series of awkward answers from Romney.
Romney has promised to release his 2012 tax return when he files it in April, but declined to say how many additional years he would release.
“I’ll release multiple years. I don’t know how many years,” Romney said.
When King asked whether Romney if he’d meet his father, George Romney’s, standard by releasing 12 years of tax returns, the Republican answered: “Maybe.”
The answer drew boos from the crowd.
Throughout the evening, Romney continued to practice the low-risk brand of politics he’s employed for most of the Republican primary campaign, ducking the details of potentially dangerous questions pivoting as often as possible to well-worn talking points.
Asked to walk viewers through the math that has led his campaign to claim that Romney’s created over 100,000 jobs, the Republican offered a less-than-comprehensive overview of his business record, and a less-than-detailed explanation of the role he played in spurring job growth.
“We started a number of businesses. Four in particular created 120,000 jobs as of today,” Romney said. “There are others we’ve been with, some of which have lost jobs. … And those that have been documented to lost jobs lost about 10,000 jobs. So 120,000 less 10,000 means that we created something over 100,000 jobs.”
With the exception of his equivocal answer on tax returns, though, Romney wasn’t pinned on any issues that imperil his GOP primary campaign, and defended himself on his recurring vulnerabilities of abortion and health care reform as ably as he has in the past.
He also benefited from recurring firefights between his conservative opponents, who couldn’t resist sniping at each other despite the shared imperative to take down Romney.
Perhaps most memorably, Santorum bristled and poked at Gingrich for his personal “grandiosity” after being reminded that his opponent suggested that Santorum should consider leaving the race.
“Newt’s a friend. I love him. But at times, you’ve just got that … worrisome moment that something’s going to pop. And we can’t afford that in a nominee,” Santorum said.
Gingrich responded by embracing the flashy, controversial persona he has come to embody – once again – in this campaign.
“You’re 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.”