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Gingrich spars with CNN, then his GOP rivals in S.C. debate

With a narrowing window to stop front-runner Mitt Romney before South Carolinians cast their ballots Saturday, Newt Gingrich stole the spotlight within the first moments of Thursday night’s debate — turning a question about allegations by his second wife into a scorching attack on the media.

The four remaining candidates for the Republican presidential nomination met for their 17th debate just hours after ABC aired an interview with the former House speaker’s ex-wife Marianne Gingrich, who alleged that he had sought an “open marriage” while carrying on an affair with a congressional staff member who later become his third wife.

CNN moderator John King opened the debate by asking Gingrich whether he wanted to respond. “No, but I will,” a stone-faced Gingrich answered, drawing loud applause from the audience. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

PHOTOS: Charleston Republican presidential debate

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“Every person in here knows personal pain,” Gingrich continued. “Every person in here has had someone close to them go through personal things. To take an ex-wife, and make it two days before a primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”

Gingrich added that he was “astounded that CNN would take trash like that” and use it to open a presidential primary debate.

Addressing his ex-wife’s allegations directly for the first time, Gingrich said the story “is false” and that he was “tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

For a moment, the tense exchange between Gingrich and King seemed to breed camaraderie among the four remaining Republican contenders, who have been battling fiercely over the past week. But their matchup at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on Thursday night came as the race was tightening, with polls showing Gingrich narrowing Romney’s lead.

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As in other debates, Romney’s experience heading the private equity firm Bain Capital quickly became a target, as did the question of whether and when he would release his tax returns.

Gingrich and Rick Santorum, former congressional colleagues and allies in the GOP’s 1994 takeover of the House, engaged in one of the sharpest exchanges of the evening, clashing over the check-kiting scandal that helped drive Democrats from power.

Santorum said Gingrich knew of the improprieties as part of the Republican leadership but “didn’t have the courage” to blow the whistle and “risk your political career, risk your promotion within the ranks and do what was right for America.”

Gingrich responded acerbically that he had been a rebel “long before Rick came to Congress,” helping drive a Democratic speaker from power and challenging the president of his own party, George H.W. Bush, when he broke his read-my-lips promise and raised taxes. “Those are just historic facts,” Gingrich said, “even if they’re inconvenient for Rick’s campaign.”

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Looking on, Romney chimed in that the back-and-forth offered “a perfect example of why we need to send to Washington someone who has not lived in Washington, but someone who has lived in the real streets of America, working in the private sector.”

Moments later, the Democratic National Committee responded to Romney’s “real streets” remark by distributing a photo gallery of lavish homes where Romney has lived in La Jolla, New Hampshire, Utah and Massachusetts.

When the conversation shifted to Romney’s work at Bain, the former Massachusetts governor repeated his defense that while he expected to be attacked by President Obama, he found it “kind of strange” on a stage with Republicans that he was having to describe “how private equity and venture capital work.”

“There’s nothing wrong with profit,” he said to applause. “That profit — that profit went to pension funds, to charities; it went to a wide array of institutions. A lot of people benefited from that.”

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He said he knew Obama would hit him hard on that issue, “but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong,” he said to applause.

The candidates also tangled over tax returns after an audience member asked the contenders when they would release their returns. “An hour ago,” Gingrich said. Paul said he would not release his, saying it was embarrassing how little money he made.

Romney said he would release his 2011 returns after he filed them in April. When King asked why he wouldn’t release the previous year’s returns before the South Carolina primary on Saturday, Romney said he wanted to make sure he could “beat President Obama: Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks.”

Romney, who recently acknowledged that his tax rate was about 15%, well below that of many working Americans, said his taxes “are carefully managed, and I pay a lot of taxes. I’ve been very successful.”

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Gingrich pounced, saying, “If there’s anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination.”

When a burst of applause faded, he added, “And if there’s nothing in there — if there’s nothing in there, why not release it?”

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in Columbia, S.C., and John Hoeffel in Mount Pleasant, S.C., contributed to this report.


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