Spotlight Turns to Gingrich's Marital Past Before South Carolina Primary
Historically, South Carolina is the make or break contest for the Republican Party. Since 1980, the winner of the state's primary has become the GOP nominee. With such high stakes, candidates went all in by spending heavily on ads and letting loose any and all attacks they can use on their opponents. The result has been surprise after surprise after surprise in the final days of the contest.
Thursday morning, Rick Perry dropped out of the race, shocking seasoned political observers by endorsing Newt Gingrich. Perry was not predicted to do well in South Carolina, but he was expected to stay in the race until the results came in Saturday.
Perry's announcement came after last weekend's gathering of 150 evangelical leaders who met to decide on a single candidate to back in the GOP contest, choosing to back Santorum. On Thursday, James Dobson, who was a key figure in the meeting, formally endorsed Santorum. In a statement, Dobson said that his key concern was state of families and marriage.
"Of all the Republican candidates who are vying for the presidency, former Sen. Santorum is the one who has spoken passionately in every debate about this concern. He has pleaded with the nation and its leaders to come to the aid of marriages, parents, and their children. What a refreshing message," Dobson said. "While there are other GOP candidates who are worthy of our support, Sen. Santorum is the man of the hour."
Dobson, who endorsed as a private individual, founded Focus on the Family but now leads his new ministry Family Talk.
According to those at the social conservative confab last weekend, one of the reasons for Dobson favoring Santorum over Gingrich was the marital history of the candidates.
On Thursday, Gingrich's past was once again a news topic because ABC aired an interview with Gingrich's second wife, Marianne Gingrich. During the interview, she said that Newt asked her for an "open marriage" when he was confronted about his affair with his now-wife Callista Gingrich. Gingrich quickly denied the charge but declined to elaborate on personal matters. In the past, he has spoken in general terms about his extramarital affairs and three marriages and about how he has sought God's forgiveness.
Before the interview was aired, Gingrich and the other candidates participated in a debate on CNN where the first question went to Gingrich, who was asked if he would like to respond to the allegations.
"No, but I will," said Gingrich, who then turned the question back as a criticism of the media.
"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 said. "And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."
Gingrich's response was met by a standing ovation from the audience. "Every person in here knows personal pain. 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." he said.
Roger Simons, chief political columnist of Politico, noted that Gingrich asked his first wife for divorce while she was being treated for cancer and divorced his second after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. CNN's John King asked each of them whether they thought Gingrich's past behavior was an "issue." "John, let's get on to the real issues is all I've got to say," Romney said. Rick Santorum hinted that it was an issue for him. "I am a Christian, too," he said. "And I thank God for forgiveness. But, you know, these are issues of our lives and what we did in our lives. They are issues of character for people to consider." And Ron Paul turned the spotlight on himself. "I think too often all of us are on the receiving ends of attacks from the media," Paul said. "And I'm very proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight."
While Gingrich was addressing his previous marraiges, Santorum continued his campaign to win over social conservatives. Whether or not he will win in South Carolina, Santorum can now claim at least one victory. In a reversal, the Iowa Republican Party announced that Santorum, not Romney, won the Iowa caucuses. When the results were originally announced, Romney edged out Santorum by eight votes. However, the final tally has Santorum as the winner by 34 votes. There are still eight precincts whose vote totals are not accounted for, but Santorum is the certified winner. Matt Strawn, chairman of the the Iowa Republican Party, congratulated both candidates "on a hard-fought effort during the closest contest in caucus history."
The primary in South Carolina is likely to be equally close. Gingrich, Romney, Santorum, and Ron Paul are each polling well going into the primary today.