Gingrich’s Ex-wife, Romney’s Taxes, CNN’s King Fuel Combative GOP Debate

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  January 20, 2012 at 8:09 AM EDT

South Carolina debate; photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

From left, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at Thursday’s GOP debate in South Carolina. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Charleston, S.C., may have lasted two hours, but it was over after about five minutes.

Newt Gingrich turned the opening question from CNN’s John King about accusations from Gingrich’s ex-wife that he had asked her for an “open marriage” into an attack on the press.

“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,” the former House speaker said.

When King responded by noting that Marianne Gingrich spoke with ABC News, not CNN, Gingrich lashed out at the moderator and the cable news network for airing clips of the interview and for deciding to lead off the debate with the question.

“Don’t try to blame someone else….The story is false,” Gingrich scolded. “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

Some of Gingrich’s strongest moments from past debates have come when he’s bashed the “elite media,” but his response Thursday might top them all. He took a late-breaking story about his troubled marital history, which threatened to derail his momentum heading into Saturday’s primary, and turned it into a critique of the news media that won support from the raucous live audience.

All this is not to say that Gingrich emerged from the encounter unscathed. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is competing with Gingrich to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney now that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has ended his campaign, gave the former speaker credit for coming up with “grandiose ideas,” but said he lacked the discipline to execute them.

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

Gingrich responded: “You’re right, I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.”

The Romney campaign played off that statement by Gingrich, issuing a mocking press release during the debate titled “I think grandiose thoughts,” which highlighted similar statements made by Gingrich, as well as historical figures he has compared himself to, such as Abraham Lincoln and Moses.

But the key moment for Romney in the debate surrounded the ongoing questions about when he planned to release his income tax returns.

Romney has said he would release the documents in April. He argued Thursday that doing so before then would give President Obama and his re-election team repeated opportunities to attack him.

“Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks,” Romney said. “As has been done in the past, if I’m the nominee, I’ll put these out at one time so we have one discussion of all of this.”

When CNN’s King asked him if he would release the previous 12 years of returns as his father, George, did when running for president in 1967, Romney responded, “Maybe,” drawing jeers from the crowd.

Romney made clear he would not allow his personal wealth — estimated between $190 and $250 million — be spun negatively for his campaign. “I know the Democrats want to go after the fact that I’ve been successful. I’m not going to apologize for being successful,” the former businessman said. “I didn’t inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way.”

Gingrich, who has repeatedly urged Romney to release his returns sooner, did so again. “If there’s anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination,” he said.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul said he did not intend to release his returns because he would “probably be embarrassed” to have his financial statement compared with the incomes of the other three remaining candidates.

The debate capped perhaps the most surreal 24-hour period of the campaign and has the potential to alter the shape of the race less than 24 hours from now when Republican voters in South Carolina go to the polls.

NEWTMENTUM?

In an interview on his campaign bus Thursday, Gingrich told the NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill (@pbsgwen), “[I]t is very difficult for Romney to ask people to vote for him without revealing his taxes, just because there are so many questions being raised.”

To illustrate Romney’s troubles, Gingrich released his own 2010 tax return during the debate.

The basics: Gingrich and his wife Callista had an adjusted gross income of $3.1 million. They owed $994,000 in taxes. His campaign said in a release that “$613,517 of the tax amount owed had been previously withheld or otherwise paid, and the couple paid the remaining balance due of $382,734 (which included an estimated $1,543 tax penalty) with their filing.”

That release could keep Romney on the defensive, but Gingrich has his own issue to deal with. ABC’s “Nightline” aired the Marianne Gingrich interview in full Thursday night.

His ex-wife said that Gingrich had told her that Callista, his mistress, would “help him become president.”

“It didn’t look like help to me,” Marianne Gingrich said.

The former House speaker declined to talk about his ex-wife during his interview with Gwen, but with a grin on his face for most of the discussion, he made clear he’s not going to go easy on Romney. She asked what needed to happen for him to come out of South Carolina still smiling. He said:

We just have to keep the momentum up.

I mean, the clearer it gets that Romney was a pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, pro-abortion governor of Massachusetts, that the gap between his commercials and his actual record is amazing, that he was 47th in job creation, fourth from the bottom, if we can keep that distinction between my record and his record, between a conservative and somebody who is pretty liberal by Republican standards, I think we will have a great Saturday.

So, through the debate tonight and through tomorrow and Saturday — we will campaign all day Saturday – we’ll just keep saying the same things.

Gwen followed up with: “And if Mitt Romney wins on Saturday, you stand by your statement that if he wins in South Carolina, the Republicans will nominate a moderate who will lose to Barack Obama in the fall?”

Gingrich’s answer:

I think it gets a little harder to stop him, although, as Karl Rove pointed out two days ago, he’s not doing well enough to be very convincing.

And if you add the conservative vote together between Santorum and me, we would beat Romney by 60-40. So my job — if Rick stays in the race, my job is to get his voters to decide they want to help beat Romney, which means they vote for me.

Click here to watch the full interview.

A LONG HAUL AHEAD

It’s worth mentioning that one year from Friday, someone will raise his hand and take the oath of office.

President Obama is amping up campaign mode. At a series of fundraisers Thursday, Obama asked his supporters to “keep pushing” on his behalf:

I’ve often said — I said in 2008, I’m not a perfect man. I’m not a perfect President. But I promise you that I’ve kept that promise I made to you in 2008, I would always tell you what I thought, I would always tell you where I stood, and I would wake up every single day fighting as hard as I can for you….

I am just as determined now as I was then. And if you are willing to stand alongside me, we will knock those obstacles out of the way. We will reach for that vision of America that we believe in — in our hearts — and change will come. If you will work harder than you did last time, change will come.

He didn’t mention Romney, but alluded to the tax issue:

I’ve been hearing a lot of these Republicans talking about, oh, that’s class warfare, and he just wants to redistribute, and doesn’t believe in work, and he’s trying to create an entitlement society, and this and that and the other. Let me be absolutely clear: I should pay more taxes, and folks in my income bracket should pay more taxes, and certainly folks who are making billions of dollars should pay more taxes, not because I want to take their money and just give it to somebody else. It’s because we’ve got basic investments and basic functions that have to be carried out in this 21st century if we’re going to be able to compete.

Mr. Obama also dazzled an enthusiastic crowd of donors by belting out a line from Al Green’s classic, “Let’s Stay Together.” Watch that video here.

BUDGET WOES TRICKLE DOWN

In a fascinating discussion about municipal finance, the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez sat down Thursday with Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa and Charleston, W. Va., Mayor Danny Jones.

Villaraigosa outlined his vision. “If you cut our schools and our work force development programs that can retrain our workers for the jobs in the new economy, those are dumb cuts,” he said. “So we believe that the federal government has to be smart about the cuts that they make and smart about the investments that we need to make to make America competitive around the world. That’s what it’s about.”

Jones told Ray that a big project in his city will be difficult to fund. If Sen. Robert Byrd were still alive, it would have been easy to get the full amount from the federal government, Jones said.

“[W]e’re not nearly on the scale as Mayor Villaraigosa. But we have a civic center that needs repair. And if Sen. Byrd was still alive and it was five years ago, we might have been able to get the money from the federal government,” Jones said. “That is not going to happen now. We have to find a way to raise the money. It’s a $40 million problem. We think we can come up with 10. There is some very tough sledding in for this country and for the cities. And the bigger they are, unfortunately, I’m afraid, the harder they are going to fall.”

Click here to watch the full conversation.

WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED

Tune in to the NewsHour Friday night for analysis from syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And check out our site Saturday for results from South Carolina’s primary (polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and a live stream of the candidates’ speeches.

2012 LINE ITEMS

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will endorse Romney on Friday and campaign for him in South Carolina, the Washington Post’s Anita Kumar (@anitakumar01) tweeted.

The Washington Times’ Stephen Dinan analyzes Paul’s voters and what role they may play for the “wild card” in the presidential race.

Eliza Newlin Carney and Kate Ackley of Roll Call write that Perry’s lobbyist backers on K Street are flocking to Romney, not Gingrich.

Reuters reports that South Carolina Democrats are not amused by Stephen Colbert’s mock candidacy.

The Charleston Post & Courier endorsed Romney as the “Best candidate for the job.”

We neglected Thursday to post Santorum’s catchy video in the style of Apple’s 1984 ad.

Perry returns home less popular than he was when he began his campaign, left-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling finds.

The New York Times asked Jim Lehrer what he thought about King’s tactics during the debate. From the story:

Others were not so sure it was the right move. Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 11 presidential and vice presidential debates in his career, said in a phone interview on Thursday night that he was surprised that CNN opened the debate with such a question. “This is a two-hour debate,” he said. “CNN would have been much better off if they’d waited.”

TWEETS OF THE MORNING

@TheFix: Wow. That was the single best day of politics in a VERY long time.

@DylanByers: Found @JohnKingCNN in hotel lobby. Re Newt: “My old AP training is, you deal with the lead of the day upfront first” http://politi.co/xD8Ufc

CITIZENS UNITED ANNIVERSARY

From NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns:

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is starting a new fundraising drive timed to the two-year anniversary of the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

DSCC spokesman Shripal Shah wrote in an email to supporters, “The Citizens United decision paved the way for special interests to pour millions [of dollars] into secretive groups.” The DSCC is starting an online campaign initiative to repeal the decision and is seeking 100,000 “citizen cosponsors” prior to the anniversary Saturday.

Other activist groups, including Public Citizen, Common Cause and the Corporate Reform Coalition, are taking action on the Citizens United anniversary as well.

“[The Citizens United ruling] is making a mockery of our campaign laws and contribution limits and is undermining our democracy,” said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, chairman of Common Cause.

Already this campaign season Super PACs have accounted for over $26 million in political expenditures.

But the road to reversal will not be easy, and in fact it’s nearly impossible. In order for the Citizens United decision to be repealed, an amendment to the Constitution would have to be approved, requiring a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. After passing Congress, three-quarters of the states would also have to pass the amendment, something that has only happened 27 times since the Constitution’s ratification in 1788.

Gwen Ifill earlier this week discussed the ruling and the effects of the Super PACs with John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity and campaign finance attorney Robert Kelner of the law firm Covington and Burling.

OUTSIDE THE LINES

The Hill’s Molly Hooper trailed House Republicans to their retreat in Maryland and writes that Speaker John Boehner opened the festivities by saying his party needs to take it to President Obama.

From the story:

“The year 2012 will be a referendum on the president’s policies, and we must use every resource at our disposal to drive that referendum — including stepped-up oversight of administration policies that are getting in the way of small business job creation,” Boehner said on Thursday afternoon to his colleagues according to a source in the room.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union on Jan. 24.

Former GOP presidential candidate and Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain will deliver the Tea Party Express’ response to Mr. Obama’s speech.

Elizabeth Warren raised more than $1 million with her “money bomb” Thursday for her run at a Massachusetts Senate seat.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • Newt Gingrich addresses the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Charleston, S.C., at 9 a.m., visits the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston at 10:15 a.m., holds a town hall in Hartsville, S.C., at 1:30 p.m. and hosts a town hall and book signing event in North Charleston, S.C., at 6 p.m.

  • Rick Santorum hosts three South Carolina town halls: in Lexington at 11 a.m., in Fort Mill at 1:45 p.m. and in Boiling Springs at 4:30 p.m. He also addresses the Citadel Patriot Dinner in Charleston at 7:15 p.m. and holds a rally in Charleston at 8 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney holds a pair of South Carolina rallies: in Gilbert at 11 a.m. and North Charleston at 3:45 p.m. He also attends a get-out-the-vote event in Greenville at 8:30 p.m.

  • Ron Paul holds a South Carolina whistle stop tour, making stop in North Charleston at 11:15 a.m., North Myrtle Beach at 12:30 p.m., Florence at 1:30 p.m., Warrenville at 3:15 p.m. and Greenville at 4:45 p.m. He ends the day with a rally in Columbia at 9 p.m.

  • Herman Cain and comedian Stephen Colbert, who is exploring a run for “president of the United States of South Carolina,” will hold a rally in Charleston at 1 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


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Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @quinnbowman.