Gingrich deflects tough question

Newt Gingrich’s combativeness at a debate in South Carolina Thursday night worked the live audience into a frenzy of standing ovations at the very start of the two-hour event. The audience cheered wildly and stood several times as Gingrich ripped into CNN moderator John King for doing something Gingrich said he found “as despicable as anything I can imagine.”

What did John King do?

He asked Gingrich if he would like to take some time to respond to a “character attack” that was receiving widespread attention from the media and through the internet. The attack came in the form of interviews an ex-wife gave to ABC and the Washington Post. In those interviews, the Marianne Gingrich claimed that, while married to her, Gingrich had an affair and asked her to agree to an open marriage or a divorce.

“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that,” said Gingrich. The audience cheered and many could be seen rising to their feet to give the former Speaker of the House a standing ovation.

Gingrich might have had a point; Republican voters and audiences in South Carolina and elsewhere have made it fairly clear through the questions they are posing that they are primarily interested in jobs and making President Obama a one-termer.

But Gingrich has been willing to talk about other people’s marriages during presidential debates. He told a debate audience in New Hampshire January 8 that he did not support allowing same-sex couples to marry because it was “a huge jump from being understanding and considerate” of the pains of discrimination against same-sex couples and “saying we’re therefore going to institute the sacrament of marriage as though it has no basis.” Marriage, said Gingrich, was “between a man and a woman.”

He did sign a right-wing “Marriage Vow” just last month in which he agreed to “uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.”

And he did criticize President Clinton in 1998, soon after the scandal broke about Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern, for having no “moral authority.”

With all this relevant background, it might seem reasonable to expect Gingrich would be eager to reassure voters that his ex-wife’s allegation was false.

But Gingrich then pointed to the audience and remarked that “every person in here” has known “personal pain” or 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 the presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” said Gingrich.

When King reminded him that the story was being talked about widely, Gingrich interrupted to harangue King for choosing to start this debate with “trash like that.”

Gingrich did eventually respond briefly to the question, saying “the story is false” and that “every personal friend I have who knew us during that period says the story was false,” though he did not offer an explanation for how those friends would have independently known “the story” was false. If there had been such an exchange between Gingrich and then-wife Marianne, it seems quite unlikely that either would have recorded it so their friends would be able to confirm that it never happened.

Gingrich ranted on, saying King’s asking the question was an example of “the elite media is protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

The audience roared its approval, and Gingrich had effectively deflected the inquiry into his character and his fidelity to the “sacrament of marriage” through a kind of smoke-and-mirrors counter-attack that he has perfected.

Gingrich’s polling in South Carolina was on the rise prior to the debate in Charleston Thursday night. According to an average of various polls, Gingrich was in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney, who won the New Hampshire primary and has widely been considered the frontrunner. But that frontrunner status has been shaken. A newly finalized tally of the Iowa caucuses straw poll has moved that contest into Rick Santorum’s win-column. And since the departure of Jon Huntsman from the field on Monday and the departure of Rick Perry on Thursday morning, the South Carolina primary has become a toss-up between Romney and Gingrich for first and second place, and Santorum and Ron Paul for third and fourth.

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