Newt Gingrich makes a point during the opening question in the GOP debate… (John Moore / Getty Images )
It took only a matter of minutes for the explosive allegations by Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife that he once asked for an “open marriage” that would include his mistress to emerge front and center at Thursday evening’s Republican debate in South Carolina.
Immediately after the candidates introduced themselves, Gingrich was asked about claims his second wife, Marianne, made to ABC News and the Washington Post this week that the former House speaker in 1999, allegedly in the midst of an affair with now-current wife Callista, had asked her to engage in a permissive three-way arrangement.
Gingrich, who must have anticipated the inquiry, theatrically responded with a blistering critique of CNN’s John King, who asked the question, the network, and the media in general.
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“I am appalled you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like this,” Gingrich said, as the crowd at the North Charleston Convention Center roared and rose to their feet in support.
“Every person in here knows personal pain,” Gingrich said. “Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things.
“I am, frankly, astounded that CNN would take trash like that and open a presidential debate.”
When King countered that it wasn’t CNN, but ABC, that was promoting the interview with Marianne Gingrich, Gingrich would have none of it.
“John, it was repeated by your network. Don’t try to blame somebody else,” he said. “You and your staff chose to start the debate with it.”
Marianne Gingrich, who was married to Gingrich for almost 20 years, is expected to tell her story fully after the debate on a special edition of ABC News’ “Nightline,” and her allegations come just as Gingrich appears to be surging in the polls days ahead of South Carolina’s primary.
Because Gingrich’s personal baggage is well documented (three marriages, ethics issues, etc.), it remains unclear whether the claims will hurt him among Republican voters.
But Gingrich clearly had decided to attack the story — and the media — with a maximum of outrage. He called his ex-wife’s allegations “false” and suggested that the media were purposefully targeting Republicans.
“They would like to attack any Republican,” he intoned. “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans”
The other three candidates on the stage in South Carolina, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, were asked about the relevancy of Marianne Gingrich’s allegations. Only Santorum seemed to suggest that Gingrich may have crossed a moral line, but did not condemn him. “This country is very forgiving,” he said.
Romney wouldn’t touch it. “Let’s get onto the real issues,” he said. “That’s all I gotta say.”