NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Newt Gingrich lashed out angrily at the news media Thursday night for fresh reporting on his failed second marriage, in an extraordinary opening to a high-stakes debate two days before a pivotal GOP presidential primary in South Carolina.
"Trash," the former Speaker of the House of Representatives called it, as he was asked to respond to media reports at the very moment when he's gaining support and has pulled into a neck-and-neck contest in the state with Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
"I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," Gingrich said, his face flush with anger, when asked about an ABC interview with his ex-wife in the opening question of a two-hour debate on CNN. In the ABC report, Gingrich's second wife, Marianne Gingrich, broke a long silence to say that he had asked her to grant him an "open marriage" so he could maintain an extramarital relationship with a House aide, Callista Bisek, who later became his third wife. He divorced Marianne in 2000 and married Callista shortly after.
Gingrich railed at ABC News for airing it, at CNN for asking about it, and at the news media generally for "destructive, negative" reporting — all drawing loud cheers and applause from the Republican audience of about 2,500.
"To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine," he said, voice rising.
When CNN moderator John King insisted he was only asking about a report aired by another network that was dominating the day's news, Gingrich turned on him as well. "It was repeated by your network, don't try to blame someone else," he said. "You chose to start the debate with it.
"The destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country," he said. "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
Asked to comment, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said it was a legitimate issue of character for voters to weigh.
"I am a Christian, too, and I thank God for forgiveness," Santorum said. "But these are issues of our lives ... issues of character for people to consider ... those are things for everyone in this audience to consider."
Romney brushed it aside.
"Let's get on to the real issues, that's all I've got to say," he said. Moments earlier, he'd introduced himself by noting his marriage of 42 years and his extensive family.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas appeared to empathize with Gingrich, saying, "Too often all of us are on the receiving end of attacks by the media." He added, however, "I'm thankful my wife of 54 years is here with me tonight."
Moments later, Santorum lashed out at Gingrich for suggesting that Santorum should drop out of the race.
"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich," Santorum said, noting that he bested Gingrich in both Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary. "I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and ... worrying about what he is going to say next."
Santorum blasted both Gingrich and Romney on health care, saying that for years, "these two guys were playing footsie with the left." As governor, Romney signed legislation requiring nearly everyone in Massachusetts to obtain health care coverage.
Santorum called it "a government-run system that was the basis of Obamacare and it has been an abject failure." Romney has maintained the plan was right for his state, and each state should choose what works best.
Gingrich, Santorum charged, also supported a version of government-mandated health care for years.
"The core of Obamacare is an individual mandate," he said. "You can't run rings around the fact, Newt, you supported the primary, core basis of what President Obama's put in place."
"Of course you can," Gingrich replied. "I was wrong and I figured it out."
Romney leveled his own blast at Gingrich, who frequently says he worked with President Ronald Reagan.
"You're mentioned once in Ronald Reagan's diary," Romney said. "I mean, he mentions George Bush 100 times. He even mentions my dad (former Michigan Gov. George Romney) once."
Gingrich said that he was a devotee of the "Ronald Reagan playbook."
The debate capped a day of fast-breaking developments in the campaign:
- Iowa's Republican Party announced that Romney did not win the state's kickoff Jan. 3 caucuses after all. After a close check, the state party said that former Gov. Rick Santorum led by 34 votes, although votes from 8 precincts are missing, so no formal declaration of a winner will be made. Initially Romney had been declared the winner by 8 votes.
- New polls showed the South Carolina race between Romney and Gingrich tight as a drum. As recently as two days ago, Romney led by double digits.
- Gov. Rick Perry of Texas dropped out, the end of a campaign that soared briefly when he entered the race, then crashed when he stumbled through debates.
- Perry endorsed Gingrich. "I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform this country," he said. "Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God. And I believe in the power of redemption."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington