(CHARLESTON, S.C.) — The most vibrant episode of Thursday night’s Republican debate happened at the very beginning, as Newt Gingrich dismissed an explosive interview given by his ex-wife and accused the mainstream media of shielding President Obama.
CNN moderator John King opened the forum by asking Gingrich about an interview that his ex-wife Marianne Gingrich gave to ABC News, in which she said the former House speaker wanted an “open marriage” with her in 1999. Gingrich turned the question around on King, blaming the mainstream media for detracting from the issues and earning a standing ovation from the audience.
“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 with a topic like that,” Gingrich said to cheers. “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 in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
As King tried to point out that CNN didn’t show the interview, Gingrich jumped in and said that “it was repeated by your network.”
“You chose to start the debate with it,” he said. “Don’t try to blame it on somebody else.”
Gingrich has won support from Republican audiences by being openly skeptical of the media. In Thursday’s debate, he triumphed as he said, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking the public.”
The other candidates — only three others, now — were asked if the matter was a valid campaign issue. Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the race, said simply, “Let’s get on to the real issues.”
Rick Santorum, though, said that “these are issues of our lives” and that “those are things for everyone in this audience to look at.”
The candidates also got heated while discussing health care, an issue that has taken a backseat to other matters during the campaign. Santorum led the charge against Romney as he lambasted “RomneyCare” for being the starting point for Obama’s health care program that is hated among many Republicans.
Bluntly, Santorum said Romney’s health care plan that was put in place in Massachusetts was the model that Obama used.
“He’s going to have run against a president who’s going to say: ‘Well, look. Look at what you did for Massachusetts, and you’re the one criticizing me?…I used your model for it.'”
While the crowd responded warmly, signaling many conservatives’ hesitance to embrace Romney, the former Massachusetts governor said his plan was “absolutely not” perfect but that “having been there, having been on the front lines,” he’d know how to repeal Obama’s plan.
Santorum didn’t buy it. “You do not draw a distinction that’s going to be effective for us, just because it was at the state level, not the federal level,” he said.
But Santorum also didn’t save his criticism just for Romney. He accused Gingrich of being late to back off his stance on the individual mandate, and he later argued that Gingrich would be a dangerous Republican nominee because he’s unpredictable. As an example, Santorum cited Gingrich’s comment that Santorum should drop out of the GOP race, even though the former Pennsylvania senator beat him in Iowa and in New Hampshire.
“These are not cogent thoughts,” Santorum said, adding that he feared a “worrisome moment that something’s going to pop, and we can’t afford that in a nominee.
“I’m steady. I’m solid. I’m not going to go out and do things that you’re going to worry about,” Santorum said.
The candidates also debated economic proposals, and with it, the focus on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
Romney has been criticized by Democrats and some GOP candidates alike for his role at Bain, being portrayed as a corporate raider who profited while people lost their jobs at companies in which the private-equity firm invested.
Romney has defended his time there by saying that four major companies that Bain helped have created more than 100,000 jobs, including 10,000 jobs that were lost.
“Capitalism works. Free enterprise works,” Romney said at the South Carolina debate, adding that it felt “kind of strange on a stage like this with Republicans having to explain” how private equity and capitalism works.
Gingrich, who is gaining on Romney’s lead in South Carolina, took a local angle as he tried to highlight Romney’s time at Bain, saying that the company Georgetown Steel was hurt.
“He cited his experience as a key part of his preparation for being president,” Gingrich said. “Those cases ought to be looked at.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio