Newt Gingrich Fends Off Tough Questions During CNN South Carolina Debate

The ex-speaker responded aggressively to Santorum’s attacks and John King’s questions about his ex-wife’s allegations, says Lloyd Grove.

David Goldman / AP Photo

Newt Gingrich was like a giant death star, threatening at any moment to suck into his field of gravity every single molecule of matter—from his rival presidential candidates on the stage beside him to the raucous South Carolina Republicans in the audience in front of him.

From the get-go, when CNN moderator John King asked the unavoidable question about Gingrich’s ex-wife’s ABC News interview and her claim that he requested an “open marriage,” the former speaker of the House launched a withering attack on the shell-shocked King, his cable network, ABC News, the Obama-loving media and the forces of evil and hatred everywhere that are ruining America.

He got a standing ovation, of course.

“Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” Rick Santorum observed at one point as he attacked his rival for erratic leadership, the unpredictable nutty remarks that tend to emanate from his mouth, and other “worrisome moments.” Indeed, Santorum—who advertised himself, by contrast, as “steady” and “solid”—did a lot of Mitt Romney’s dirty work for him, reframing many of the Romney campaign’s anti-Newt talking points and firing at will.

Romney, meanwhile, took the occasion of Thursday night’s final debate before the South Carolina primary to show off his penchant for prissy indignation. “I’m not questioned on character and integrity very often,” he complained during a discussion of his shifting abortion positions. Apparently he hasn’t been watching the TV ads. And he also—unbelievably—persisted in his stubborn refusal to accept political reality concerning the inevitable release of his tax returns.

Yes, Romney admitted, he’ll have to let us see his 2011 return sometime in April, and possibly release multiple returns from previous years (a tradition started, ironically enough, by his father when he ran for president in 1968), but he sure sounded aggrieved about the whole thing. And the explanation he gave for his hesitation—that President Obama and the Democrats will use the information to slime him—couldn’t have been very reassuring to the audience. (The Gingrich campaign released Newt’s 2010 return as the debate progressed.)

Ron Paul did his usual thing—singing the praises of a Darwinian, unregulated, gold-backed economy—and he didn’t do much to persuade the unconverted.

The one thing that came through from the debate is that Newt, by refusing to be knocked off stride on a day of intense pressure, showed himself to be one tough SOB. And Mitt, obviously rattled by the Gingrich “surge,” seemed like a delicate hothouse flower.