Questions about Gingrich’s personal life, Romney’s wealth dominate debate

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.--Newt Gingrich angrily criticized the media for focusing on his personal life at the outset of Thursday's Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, disputing allegations made by his ex-wife in an interview that he had pressed her for an "open marriage."

Marianne Gingrich's interview with ABC News was the subject of the first question at the debate sponsored by CNN. Asked if he would like to respond to her claims about their marriage, Gingrich replied, "No, but I will." But first, he lashed out at CNN's John King, the debate's sole moderator.

"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," Gingrich declared. "I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that."

He denied his ex-wife's claim that he had asked for an "open marriage" during the 1990s amid an affair with his current wife, Callista, calling the story "false."

"Every person in here knows personal pain," Gingrich declared. "Every person in here has had someone close to them go though painful 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."

You can watch video of the moment below:

His Republican rivals declined to criticize Gingrich on stage, with Mitt Romney saying it was time to get onto "real issues." But both Romney and Ron Paul went out of their way to emphasize their own stable marriages in contrast to Gingrich's history of marital strife.

The moment set the tone for a debate that was largely focused on issues that have long been covered in the 15 debates that have already been held in the Republican race to date.

Romney was again put on the defensive about his unwillingness to immediately disclose his tax returns—even as Gingrich released his paperwork midway through the debate. But in contrast to previous debates, Romney offered a more decisive answer on when voters will see his paperwork—April—and for the first time said he would disclose returns from "prior years."

Asked why he would not immediately reveal his returns, Romney bluntly admitted he didn't want to provide ammunition for his critics. "I want to make sure that I beat President Obama, and every time we release things, drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks," he said.

But Romney, who has struggled to connect with voters on the stump, also faced scrutiny for his wealth. He told his rivals that he would not "apologize" for his success. While he acknowledged he had been born into comfortable circumstances, he said his money came from his hard work, not from his father.

"I went off on my own. I didn't inherit money from my parents. What I have I earned. I worked hard, the American way," Romney insisted.

Meanwhile, Santorum, seeking to gain momentum in a race whose momentum has shifted to Gingrich, went after both Romney and Gingrich on the issue of health care, accusing them both of supporting individual mandates—which is a centerpiece of President Obama's health care plan.

He argued he was the only candidate on stage with the ability to truly stand up against Obama. "I've been fighting for health reform, private sector, bottom up, the way America works best, for 20 years, while these two guys were playing footsies with the left," Santorum declared.

You can watch Santorum deride "RomneyCare" in the clip below:

But in an exchange that sounded as though it could have been scripted by the Romney campaign, Santorum raised questions Gingrich's leadership abilities.

"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich," Santorum said. "Newt's a friend. I love him. But at times, you've just got, you know, sort of that worrisome moment that something's going to pop. And we can't afford that in a nominee."

You can watch the exchange below:

Gingrich scoffed at Santorum's criticism. "You're right. I think grandiose thoughts," he said. "This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things. And we need leadership prepared to take on big projects."

Standing between the two men, Romney raised his hand to interject--using the moment to argue that he's best positioned to challenge Obama because he's a Washington outsider.

"What you've listened to ... is, in my view, a perfect example of why we need to send to Washington someone who has not lived in Washington, but someone who's lived in the real streets of America, working in the private sector, who's led a business, who started a business," Romney insisted.

Turning to Gingrich, the former Massachusetts governor delivered a line he had clearly prepped in advance--slamming his claims of cooperation with Ronald Reagan.

"I mean, I looked at the Reagan diary. You're mentioned once in Ronald Reagan's diary," Romney said. "And in the diary, he says you had an idea in a meeting of young congressmen, and it wasn't a very good idea and he dismissed it. That's the entire mention."

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