Elections 2012: Romney, Gingrich and Santorum Attack Each Other in CNN Debate

Republican presidential candidates tore into each other on Thursday and Newt Gingrich snarled at the CNN moderator in a raucous debate two days before the South Carolina primary, which may decide the nomination race.

The debate came at the end of day of high drama in the Republican nomination battle. Photo: Washington Examiner1/Flickr

It was the most eventful day of the Republican primary season, The Huff Post suggests.

Iowa’s Republican party kicked off the day announcing that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa) had won the Jan. 3 caucuses, instead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry withdrew from the race and endorsed Gingrich.

And then it emerged that Gingrich’s former wife, Marianne Gingrich, was accusing the former House speaker of asking her to take part in an “open marriage” to allow him to keep a mistress.

CNN’s moderator John King opened the 17th debate of the primary season with a direct invitation to Mr Gingrich respond to the allegation.

“I am appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” he responded, according to The Telegraph.

“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.”

“I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans. 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,” Mr Gingrich continued.

“I am, frankly, astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate,” he said.

Pressed further on the allegations, he said: “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.”

Mr Romney and the others declined the opportunity to exploit the allegations about Mr Gingrich, though the front-runner did point out in his opening remarks to the fact that he had been married for 42 years.

Romney was again dogged by questions about his tax payments after spending days on the campaign trail fending off criticism for paying taxes at a low 15 percent rate.

“I’ll release my returns in April, and probably for others years as well,” Romney said.

“I’m not going to apologize for being successful,” he said, according to Reuters.

Then Mr Romney tried to deflate Mr Gingrich’s boasts about being an ally of Ronald Reagan, who is still regarded as the epitome of a Republican president.

Gingrich insisted he led a Republican revolution and worked with Republican President Ronald Reagan.

“I participated in the ’80s in an enormous project of economic growth and, with President Reagan’s leadership, the American people created 16 million jobs,” he said.

But Romney quibbled with how much Reagan actually appreciated Gingrich, pointing out that Reagan mentioned Gingrich only once in his presidential memoir.

“I mean, he mentions George Bush 100 times. He even mentions my dad once,” Romney said.

Mr Santorum criticised Mr Gingrich’s support of the principle of individually-mandated health insurance, which is at the heart of the health care reform passed by President Barack Obama that every Republican has vowed to repeal.

“You can’t run rings around the fact that you supported the core basis of what President Obama put in place,” he said.

“I can,” retorted Mr Gingrich, while conceding the point. “I can say ‘I was wrong and figured it out, you were wrong and didn’t’.”

“Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich, he handles it very, very well,” Santorum said. “And that’s really one of the issues here, folks. A month ago he was saying, ‘It’s inevitable that I’m going to win the election, I’m destined to do it.'”

“I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and getting the picture the next day and I have to worry about what he’s going to say next. That’s what I think we’re seeing here.”

“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. We can’t afford that in a nominee,” Santorum said.

Polls have shown Gingrich rapidly erasing Romney’s double-digit lead over the past few days, and the race here looks like it will indeed come down to the wire.

A CNN poll released late Thursday, however, showed Romney maintaining a 10-point lead, with 33 percent, compared with Gingrich’s 23 percent.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the South Carolina race getting closer with Romney at 35 percent support, Gingrich with 23 percent and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum with 15 percent.

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