Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew at least two standing ovations just moments into the final South Carolina GOP presidential debate tonight when he criticized CNN moderator John King for opening with “trash,” and accused the liberal media of attempting to protect President Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.
King began the two-hour debate from the North Charleston Coliseum with a question on accusations by Gingrich’s ex-wife, Marianne, that the former speaker had asked her for permission to have an "open marriage" after she learned he was having an affair with his current wife, the former Callista Bisek.
“As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it she says that you came to her in 1999 at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?” asked King.
“No, but I will,” snapped Gingrich, who was visibly angered by the question. “I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that.”
Interrupted frequently by applause — including standing ovations similar to what he received at Monday’s debate — Gingrich strongly denied the accusation and said that he offered to give ABC News the names of “several” friends who knew him at the time he was married to his ex-wife and would support his contention that the story is false.
“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 in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” he said. The audience roared.
Gingrich also pointed to support from his two daughters. “My two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it 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,” Gingrich told the host.
The two South Carolina debates this week appear to have done more to narrow the GOP field than either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary as Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign hours before Thursday’s debate and former Utah Gov. and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman suspended his campaign on Monday — hours before that debate.
Republican strategist Bradley A. Blakeman, who served as a debate analyst for the Fox Radio Network on Thursday, proclaimed Gingrich the debate's big winner, largely due to his response at the outset.
“Gingrich was waiting for this. It’s like shooting ducks in a pond. He knew righteous indignation worked on Monday so try it again on Thursday,” Blakeman told Newsmax in an exclusive interview after the debate.
Blakeman said that Romney once again appeared to stumble over the release of his income tax returns, a major problem for him during Monday’s debate when he said he would consider, but did not immediately commit to releasing his tax returns around the April timeframe.
“I think if you balance it out, Romney had to do a much better job tonight, which he didn’t do. He didn’t make any major gaffes but on the other hand he didn’t do substantially better than he did on Monday especially with regard to the tax question,” said Blakeman, who served as a senior staff member for President George W. Bush.
“What he should have said was, ‘I’m going to release the 2010 [return] in two weeks.’ What he should have explained is my tax returns are extremely complicated and I want time to review them.”
Before the start of Thursday’s event, host King noted the dwindling number of podiums on the debate stage. “We had five in here at sun-up this morning. We’re down to four now,” he told viewers on CNN, which hosted the event. “That’s a little bit more cozy. There were seven candidates when I moderated back in June. There have been eight candidates at some of the debates. Now we’re down to just four.”
Gingrich surged ahead of Romney in four separate polls based largely on his performance in Monday’s debate, positioning him to not only do well in South Carolina but also in the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
Noted pollster and author Scott Rasmussen told Newsmax.TV earlier on Thursday that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s appeal as the “inevitable nominee” appears to be starting to wane based largely on Gingrich’s debate performance.
Pressed by King to weigh in on whether the accusations by Marianne Gingrich should be an issue in the campaign, his rivals also appeared supportive — if not uncomfortable — with the line of questioning.
“I am a Christian too and I thank God for forgiveness,” replied former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is now believed to have edged out Romney by 34 votes in the final tally in last month’s Iowa caucuses.
“But these are issues of our lives and what we did in our lives. They’re issues of character for people to consider. But the bottom line is those are things for everyone in this audience to look at. And they’re going to look at me — look at what I’ve done in my private life and personal life, unfortunately. And what I say is that this country is a very forgiving country. This country understands that we are all fallen and I’m very hopeful that we will be judged by that standard and not by a higher one on the ultimate day.”
Like Gingrich, his chief rival heading into Saturday’s critical vote, Romney also appeared to be angered by the question. “John let’s get on to the real issues is all I’ve got to say,” he said to applause.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul used the opportunity to lash out at the media. “I think too often all of us are on receiving ends of attacks from the media,” he told the debate audience. “It’s very disturbing because sometimes they’re not based on facts and we suffer the consequences.
"You know, sometimes it reminds me of this idea of getting corporations out of running campaigns but what about the corporations that run the media?” he asked to applause. “The people have to sort this out but I think setting standards are very important, and I’m very proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight.”
When the spotlight turned to Romney’s tenure as CEO of Bain Capital, the former governor bristled at having to explain the math behind the number of jobs his former company helped to create.
“My view is capitalism works. Free enterprise works and I find it kind of strange on a stage like this — with Republicans, having to describe how private equity and venture capital work and how they’re successful and how they create jobs. But let me tell you that answer. We started a number of businesses — four in particular created 120,000 jobs as of today.
“We started them years ago. They’ve grown well beyond the time I was there, to 120,000 people that have been employed by those enterprises. There are others we’ve been with, some of which have lost jobs,” Romney responded, pointing to a net increase of more than 100,000 jobs.
“I’m very proud of the fact that throughout my career I have worked to try and build enterprises, hopefully to return money to investors. There’s nothing wrong with profit by the way,” he said to applause. “That profit went to pension funds, to charities. It went to a wide array of institutions. A lot of people benefitted from that. And by the way — as enterprises become more profitable — they can hire more people.
“I’m someone who believes in free enterprise . . . Throughout this campaign I know we’re going to hit it hard from President Obama but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.”
Gingrich, earlier in the debate, had called on Romney to explain his model for investment, which he insisted was to “take over a company and dramatically leverage it, leave it with a great deal of debt, made it less likely to survive.”
While all four remaining GOP candidates threw jabs at Obama, Santorum in particular sought to raise his own profile, describing his own apparent change in fortune in Iowa, where officials had initially proclaimed an eight-vote victory for Romney.
Santorum played aggressor for much of the night, trying to inject himself into what seemed increasingly like a two-way race between Gingrich and Romney, accusing both men of "playing footsie with the left" when it came to health care — an accusation that both rivals rejected.
With respect to Gingrich, Santorum said, "you sort of have that worrisome moment that something's going to pop. And we can't afford that in a nominee.”
In a reflection of the complex political dynamics of the race, first Gingrich and then Santorum challenged Romney over his well-documented switch of position on abortion. Once a supporter of a woman's life to choose, he now says he is "pro-life."
Gingrich didn't specifically question Romney's change in position, but he didn't embrace it, either, saying, "He had an experience in a lab and became pro-life.”
Romney again bristled. "I'm not questioned on character or integrity very often. I don't feel like standing here for that."
Vying for votes in a state with 9.9 percent unemployment, the candidates were asked by Jane Gallagher of Mount Pleasant, S.C., to name three specific programs that would put Americans back to work.
Paul answered first. “Well most of the things the federal government could do to get us back to work is get out of the way,” offered the Texan, repeating common themes of his campaign. “I’d like to see the federal government have a sound currency. That creates a healthy economy. I would like to see massive reduction of regulations. I would like to see income tax reduced to near zero as possible. And that is what we have to do.”
He said that government must get out of the way.
“We have to recognize why we have unemployment and it comes because we have a deeply flawed financial system that causes financial bubbles. The bubbles burst and you have unemployment. Now the most important thing to get over that hump, that was created artificially by bad economic policies, is to allow the correction to occur, you have to get rid of the excessive debt and you have to get rid of the mal-investment,” he said.
“And you don’t do that by buying the debt off the people who were benefiting from it. So we the people shouldn’t be stuck with these debts on these mortgage derivatives and all. We need to get that behind us, which means the government shouldn’t be doing any bailouts so most of the things to improve the environment is getting the government out of the way and enforce contract laws and enforce bankruptcy laws.”
Gingrich began his response by pledging to fight for the repeal of Dodd-Frank. “There’s one easy thing to do at a national level and that’s repeal the Dodd-Frank bill, which is killing small business, killing small banks. That would help overnight,” he explained.
He pointed to three specific actions the government can take: “One there’s $29 billion plus of natural gas offshore. In Louisiana, jobs for that kind of production are $80,000 a year. That would help us become energy independent from the Middle East,” he said, noting that some of the royalties from the natural gas could be used to modernize the Port of Charleston and the Port of Georgetown.
“Charleston has to be modernized to meet the larger ships that will come through the Panama Canal in 2014,” said Gingrich. “One out of every five jobs in South Carolina is dependent on the Port of Charleston.
“The third thing you can do, frankly, is fundamentally, radically overhaul the Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers today takes eight years to study — not to complete — to study doing the port. We won the entire Second World War in three years and eight months.”
Romney began his answer by pointing to the need to overhaul the tax code.
“Of course we’ve spoken time and again about our tax code that’s out of alignment with other nations,” he said. “We’ve spoken about the fact that regulation is overwhelming us, that we need to take care of our energy resources and become energy secure. We have to open up markets and we have to crack down in China when they cheat.”
He went on to accuse Obama of engaging in what he described as crony capitalism. “If you want to get America going again, you've got to stop the spread of crony capitalism. He gives General Motors to the UAW. He takes $500 million and sticks in into Solyndra. He stacks the labor stooges on the NLRB so they can say ‘no’ to Boeing and take care of their friends in the labor movement,” according to Romney.
“You go across the country with regard to energy — because he has to bow to the most extreme members of the environmental movement — he turns down the Keystone Pipeline which would bring energy and jobs to America. This president is the biggest impediment to job growth in this country and we have to replace Barack Obama to get America working again.”
While saying that he too believes in capitalism, Santorum also took an apparent jab at Romney. “I believe in capitalism too. I believe in capitalism for everybody, not necessarily high finance, but capitalism that works for the working men and women of this country, who are out there paddling alone in America right now — who have an unemployment rate two-and-a-half times those who are college educated and feel that no party cares about them because you have the Democratic Party and Barack Obama and all he wants to do is make them more dependent — give them more food stamps, give them more Medicaid,” he declared.
While speaking with an Iowa official recently, Santorum said, he was appalled to learn that the state is in danger of being fined because not enough people are being signed up for Medicaid. “This is what the answer is for the economic squalor that Barack Obama has visited on working men and women of this country and is creating more government programs and getting more dependent on those programs,” Santorum added. “We need a party that just doesn’t talk about high finance and cutting corporate taxes or cutting the top tax rates.
“We need to talk about how we’re going to put men and women in this country, who built this country, back to work in this country in the manufacturing sector of our economy.”
Santorum said that he would fight to make U.S. manufacturers more competitive. “South Carolina can compete with anybody in this world in manufacturing. We just need to give them the opportunity to compete and we are 20 percent more costly than our top nine trading partners. And that’s excluding labor costs,” he said.
“That’s why I said we need to cut the corporate tax of manufacturing down to zero. We need to give manufacturers a leg up so they can compete for the jobs — half of which we went from 21 percent of this country in manufacturing down to 9 – and we left the dreams of working men and women on the sideline. We need to show that we’re the party. We’re the movement that is going to get those Reagan Democrats — those conservative Democrats all throughout the states that we need to win — to win this election — to sign up with us and we’ll put them back to work.”
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