With polls showing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich closing in on Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney, both men found themselves on the defensive Thursday night in the final debate before Saturday’s crucial South Carolina primary.
Gingrich opened the debate by denying new charges made by his former wife Marianne that he asked for an open marriage, in which both parties could have other sexual partners. But that denial came after he received whoops and cheers from the entire Charleston crowd, including supporters of the four remaining candidates on stage. Gingrich angrily turned aside the question by CNN moderator John King., and said, “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
It was the first exchange in a two-hour debate that touched on immigration, abortion, health care reform and who among the four was best equipped to challenge President Obama. And it set the tone for what is likely to be a make-or-break primary election for the Georgia politician and historian. If Gingrich can’t win in neighboring Southern states – the next primary after South Carolina is in Florida – his candidacy will likely collapse.
Gingrich has always been a controversial figure, rejected even by members of his Republican caucus in the 1990s. He did less well later in the debate when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum attacked his character, accusing his former Capitol Hill colleague and friend of being a loose cannon who couldn’t be trusted with the presidency.
“Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” said Santorum, who was furious that Gingrich suggested that he drop out of the race after Santorum was belatedly declared the winner in the Iowa caucuses and ran ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire. “I don’t want a nominee where you go out and pick up the paper the next day and worry about what he’s going to say next.”
“I think grandiose thoughts,” Gingrich fired back. “We need leadership that can take on big projects.”
Romney seemed relaxed and in charge early in the evening, as Gingrich was railing against the question about his former marriage and squabbling with Santorum over who was better suited to be president. But he soon found himself fending off charges that have dogged his campaign from its start. Again, Santorum led the way by attacking him on his flip-flopping on key issues like abortion and health care reform.
Gingrich went after Romney regarding his former role as a founder and chief operating officer of Bain Capital, a private equity fund with a checkered job creation record because some of the companies it bought and later sold went bankrupt. “The underlying model of that kind of investment, which is very different than venture capital, ought to be looked at,” Gingrich said.
Romney expressed dismay that members of his own party would raise the issue. “I know we’re going to get attacked from the left and Barack Obama on capitalism and how capitalism works,” he said. “I find it kind of strange on a stage like this with Republicans to have to explain how private equity works and how capitalism works.”
Romney once again stumbled in his efforts to deflect rising demands – even from some of his supporters like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – to release his tax returns before Saturday’s South Carolina primary, to allay questions about the sources of his income and precisely how much he pays in taxes. Gingrich, who released his 2010 tax returns last night, said the party is entitled to know if there are any problems with his taxes that would become an albatross in the general election campaign – when jobs and income inequality are likely to be major issues.
Romney repeated again that he would release his taxes in April, and that he might include several years of tax returns, but signaled he was in no rush. “I want to be sure we beat President Obama,” he said. Rather than dribbling out the returns, “I’ll put them out all at one time, so we’ll have one discussion about this.” The crowd booed.
Romney had much riding on the outcome of last night’s debate as he seeks to halt his slide in the polls and fend off a renewed effort by Gingrich to topple him from the front-runner status that he has tenuously held from the very beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign more than a year ago.
Time and again, rivals have questioned his conservative credentials and threatened to derail his well organized and well financed campaign organization, and each time he has found a way out of a predicament, or else his challengers have self destructed or simply fallen by the way side.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, tormented Romney for months with her high-profile exploratory bus trips and semi-political events in key battleground states that kept the media in thrall and kept Romney off balance. Had she decided to enter the race, Palin almost certainly would have surged to the top of the GOP presidential field and rallied the Tea Party and social conservatives who had little interest in Romney. But rather than panic, Romney stuck to his game plan by focusing his criticism on President Obama and the economy.
In the end, Palin passed up the race to continue doing what she is doing – making a lot of money as a speaker, TV commentator, author and personality. Her decision not to run came a day after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also opted not to enter the presidential sweepstakes – another incredible piece of good fortune for Romney, who later brought the popular and dynamic Christie on board his campaign.
Palin’s departure from the scene opened the door to a steady stream of pretenders to the GOP presidential crown – including Rep. Michele Bachman of Minnesota, former Godfather’s CEO Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but each time they fell away. Just yesterday, Perry announced he was pulling out of the race after a horrible showing in Iowa and bypassing the New Hampshire primary.
And now, a resurgent Gingrich is posing the final hurdle to Romney’s quest for the nomination. The former House speaker’s campaign imploded last summer when his staff quit en masse to protest his lackadaisical campaigning style, the excessive influence of his third wife, Callista, and their $500,000 debt at luxury jewelry store Tiffany & Co. Yet Gingrich made an extraordinary comeback late last year on the strength of his debate performances, only to be mauled in Iowa after Romney’s Super PAC aired $3.5 million of negative ads against him.
Gingrich is looking for vindication and a come-from-behind victory in South Carolina on Saturday, and appeared to have the wind at his back heading into last night’s debate. But that was just as Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne was about to go public on ABC News with the disclosure that Gingrich had asked her for an “open marriage” so that he could see Callista while remaining married to her.
For Romney, a Mormon who has been married to the same woman for well over 40 years and boasts a family of five sons, that must have been music to his ears, even as Gingrich scored big points with the audience by attacking John King and the “elite” news media. But when asked last night what he thought of the controversy, Romney simply replied to King, “John, let’s get on to the real issues. That’s all I’ve got to say.”