GOP Debate: Gingrich Kills Infidelity Question, and That's Just the Start

The night provided serious fireworks on marriage and media, tax returns, and health care, but the former speaker maintained his momentum.

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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- When CNN's John King uncorked the open-marriage question on Newt Gingrich in the very first exchange of Thursday's debate, and Gingrich responded with a scorching display of righteous contempt, it seemed the debate's big news had transpired within the first five minutes. But the two hours that followed were almost equally remarkable -- full of tough, substantive exchanges, sharp elbows, and memorable lines.

There was Mitt Romney calling himself "someone who's lived in the real streets of America." Rick Santorum accusing Gingrich of "grandiosity" -- and Gingrich pleading guilty. Romney dodging swipes on his failure to release his tax returns. And, at long last, a real hashing-out of the former Massachusetts governor's record on health care.

The thing was, Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney all had pretty strong nights. Only Ron Paul, who was conspicuously peripheral to the discussion even when he was speaking, didn't. In a campaign where the myriad debates have been pivotal to the course of events, it seems the field has narrowed to the best debaters.

The bottom line: Gingrich's momentum continues unabated. Santorum might have won some converts. Romney, who is both the strongest and the weakest candidate in the field, was both strong (speaking with more verve and conviction than usual) and weak (notably bobbling a question on his tax returns). Ironically, the most exciting debate of the campaign so far may have done nothing to alter its trajectory.

Two moments for the ages:

* Gingrich tees off. Here's the former speaker's full answer to King's opening question, an open-ended query asking him to respond to his ex-wife's recent television interview describing his desire for an open marriage.

GINGRICH: 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.(APPLAUSE)

KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?

GINGRICH: Let me finish.

KING: Please.

GINGRICH: 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 for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. (APPLAUSE)

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. (APPLAUSE)

KING: As you noted, Mr. Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is a subject of conversation on the campaign. I'm not -- I get your point. I take your point.

GINGRICH: John -- John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it. (APPLAUSE)

Let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor. They're attacking me. I'm sure they'll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul.

I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.
By the end of Gingrich's diatribe -- delivered in full umbrage, eyebrows knitted, finger jabbing -- not only were those in the debate hall standing and cheering, people watching at home probably were too. He could not have asked for a better occasion to rebut the issue. By waxing emotional even as he lectured the media, Gingrich got the public on his side for the most potentially damaging hurdle between him and Saturday's primary.

* Santorum shows strength. The former Pennsylvania senator is the only lawyer on the stage, and it showed Thursday. (Romney has a law degree but never practiced.) He's better than anyone at punching logical holes in his rivals' arguments. Two of the best moments were when he skewered Gingrich for "grandiosity" and when he took both Gingrich and Romney to the wall on health care.

Asked whether it was presumptuous for Gingrich to call for his withdrawal from the race, Santorum said, "Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich." The former speaker's self-aggrandizement, he said, "These are not cogent thoughts. Let's just be honest." He added:

I mean, Newt's a friend. I love him. But at times, you've just got, you know, sort of that, you know, worrisome moment that something's going to pop.  And we can't afford that in a nominee. We need someone -- I'm not the most flamboyant, and I don't get the biggest applause lines here. But I'm steady. I'm solid. I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about. I'm going to be out there. I'm going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign.

The question is whether he'll still have much chance to do so after Saturday's primary.

Image: John Moore / Getty Images
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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