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Newt dominates South Carolina CNN debate; deflects "open marriage" charge

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- GOP White House hopeful Newt Gingrich climbed on his pedestal at Thursday's debate, biting off CNN host John King's head, offended at being asked about a report that he asked his then wife for an "open marriage."

And in a clever maneuver, his campaign released his personal and foundation tax returns while the debate was ongoing, ratcheting up the pressure on chief rival Mitt Romney, a multi, multi-millionaire, to do the same before April.

The release, coming 44 minutes into the two-hour debate -- showed an adjusted gross income of $3,142,066 -- was also an attempt to change the subject from Gingrich's sex life and marital fidelity to Romney's fortune.

Gingrich, who may overtake Romney in Saturday's South Carolina primary, dominated the debate, capping one of the most chaotic, dramatic, newsy and potentially game-changing days in the GOP primary.

Turns out Iowa Republicans goofed and Rick Santorum beat Romney in the caucus by 34 votes. Marianne Gingrich, Gingrich's second wife, told ABC's Nightline that Gingrich, having an affair, asked her if she would allow an "open marriage." Rick Perry dropped out, throwing his support to Gingrich, calling him a "conservative visionary."

King started off the debate asking about the interview Marianne Gingrich gave to ABC's "Nightline" where she said Gingrich in 1999 -- when he was having an affair with Calista, a congressional staffer, now his third wife -- asked her for an "open marriage."

"Would you like to take sometime to respond to that?"

Gingrich said, "No."

After a pause he added, "but I will."

"I think -- 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 on a topic like that," Gingrich said.

Romney has had the most difficult week of his cautious campaign.

A rival calling for the release of tax returns is Politics 101, and Romney's camp allowed the issue to fester, going from No to Maybe to April, after the nominee will probably be chosen already. Romney went from agreeing to release one year to perhaps multiple years.

"If nothing is there," said Gingrich, "why not release it?"

Romney's resistance to disclosure is a gift to Gingrich, but only in the short term, because eventually he will release a return. In the meantime, neither Ron Paul nor Rick Santorum has put out their taxes.

In discussing his income taxes on Tuesday, Romney blundered and showed how out of touch he is when he said the $374,327 he earned in speaking fees was "not very much."

"It's been an educational week," a Romney insider told me.

Santorum has been irritated in past days by Gingrich hinting he should get out of the way. After all, Santorum did better in Iowa and New Hampshire than Gingrich.

But Gingrich has never tasted humble pie. Santorum on the campaign trail in South Carolina talked of his "hubris" and "arrogance" and in the debate all but called him mentally unbalanced.

Gingrich is "worrisome," said Santorum. At any moment "something's going to pop."

Replied Gingrich, "You're right: I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects."

Florida comes next, with a primary vote on Jan. 31 and yet another debate Monday in Tampa. Romney's team figures that even if he does poorly in South Carolina, his defenses are in place in Florida.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on January 20, 2012 1:36 AM.

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