NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- With time ebbing to catch front-runner Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidates brawled Thursday night in a debate that drew angry denunciations of the media from Newt Gingrich and spurred heated disagreements between Gingrich and fellow challenger Rick Santorum.
The nearly two-hour face-off, held two days before Saturday's primary, opened with a tense confrontation between Gingrich and CNN moderator John King. It began after King asked Gingrich whether he wanted to respond to an allegation by his second wife, aired on ABC Thursday, that he sought an "open marriage" while carrying on an affair with a congressional aide who is now his spouse.
"No," Gingrich responded, staring stone-faced at King as the audience applauded loudly. "But I will."
He called the story "trash" and said it was false, prompting more thunderous applause.
"Every person in here knows personal pain," Gingrich said. "Every person in here has had someone close to them go through personal things. To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before a primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
Gingrich said he was "tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
The four remaining Republican contenders -- Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul -- met hours after Texas Gov. Rick Perry withdrew from the race, opening a raucous campaign day that included the allegation from Marianne Gingrich and the announcement from Iowa that Santorum was the top vote-getter in the Iowa caucuses, not Romney as initially thought.
The four debated amid signs of a tightening race in South Carolina. Romney, who placed fourth here in his bid for the presidency four years ago, has led in recent polls. But a new Politico survey released Thursday showed Gingrich narrowing the gap with the former Massachusetts governor to just seven points after his well-received performance in Monday night's debate in Myrtle Beach.
Gingrich and Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, each has tried to convince conservative voters in South Carolina to unify behind him to knock Romney off the path to the nomination.
That competition played out Thursday night as Santorum bridled at the former House speaker's suggestion that he drop out of the race, noting that he had bested Gingrich in the two states that have held voting contests.
"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich" Santorum said. "So I was 2-and-0 coming into South Carolina and I should get out of the race? Uh, these are not -- these are not cogent thoughts and, and let's just be honest. Newt's a friend, I love him, but at times you (worry) that something's going to pop, and we can't afford that in a nominee.
"I'm not the most flamboyant, I don't get the biggest applause in here, but I'm steady. I'm solid. I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about."
The two former congressional colleagues, allies in the GOP's 1994 House takeover, engaged in one of the sharpest exchanges of the evening when they clashed over the House banking scandal that helped drive Democrats from power.
Santorum, who pressed the issue at the time, said that as part of the Republican leadership, Gingrich knew of the improprieties but "didn't have the courage" to blow the whistle" and "risk your political career ... and do what was right for America."
Gingrich responded dismissively that he had long been a rebel, helping drive a Democratic speaker from power and challenging the president from his own party, George H.W. Bush, when he broke his read-my-lips promise and raised taxes.
"Those are just historic facts," Gingrich said, "even if they're inconvenient for Rick's campaign. "
Looking on, Romney sought to emphasize his business background by chiming in that the back-and-forth offered "a perfect example of why we need to send to Washington someone who has not lived in Washington, but someone who has lived in the real streets of America, working in the private sector."
Romney endured mild hits during the night as opponents criticized the health care plan he pushed when he was governor of Massachusetts, his position shifts on abortion and his work for a private-equity company. The last one led Romney to say that while he expected Democrats to attack his business record, he found it "kind of strange" to be on a stage with Republicans and have to describe "how private equity and venture capital work."
"There's nothing wrong with profit," he said. "That profit went to pension funds, to charities; it went to a wide array of institutions. A lot of people benefited from that."
Romney, who has abandoned his strategy of ignoring rivals as the South Carolina race tightened, homed in on the former speaker, saying that he found Gingrich's oft-repeated claims that he had created millions of jobs while working with President Ronald Reagan "amusing" given that businesses create jobs, not government.
Romney said he had looked at Reagan's diary and found Gingrich mentioned once.
"He says you had an idea ... and it wasn't a very good idea, and he dismissed it. That's the entire mention. And -- I mean, he mentions George Bush a hundred times. He even mentions my dad once."
Romney's father, the late presidential candidate and Michigan Gov. George Romney, came up on another occasion when an audience member asked the candidates whether they would release their tax returns. Romney's father released 12 years of returns, and Romney was asked whether he would do the same.
Romney said he would release his 2011 returns after he filed them in April and "maybe" replicate his father's release. The audience groaned.
King asked why he wouldn't release the previous year's returns before the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
"Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama," he said. "And every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks."
Gingrich replied that he released his return "an hour ago," Paul said he was embarrassed by how little he made, and Santorum said he prepares his own returns and would release them when he went home and could get them off his computer.
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, paid $994,708 in federal taxes on gross income of $3,142,066 in 2010, according to copies of the couple's return. The 31.5 percent tax rate paid by the Gingriches is roughly double the amount that Romney this week said he pays on his much larger income.
Santorum, the son of an immigrant, connected with the audience on several occasions, notably when he spoke out against Gingrich's proposal to allow some illegal immigrants to apply for legal residency if they have been in the country 25 years, have deep ties to their community and meet other requirements.
"I grieve for people who have been here 25 years and maybe have to be separated from their family if they were picked up and deported," Santorum said. "But my father grieved for his father when he came to this country and lived here five years, and other folks who sacrificed, who came here to America, did it the right way according to the law, because America was worth it. And if you want to be an American, the first thing you should do is respect our laws and obey our laws."
As usual, Paul, a Texas congressman, was given less attention than the other candidates, to the point that his supporters once chimed in loudly from the audience and demanded that he be allowed to answer a question on abortion that the other three men answered. King assented.
"It's a medical subject and I'm a doctor," said Paul, who argued that government should get out of health care because any federal funding could end up being used to pay for abortion.
(Staff writer Michael Finnegan in North Charleston contributed to this report.)
By Seema Mehta and John Hoeffel
Los Angeles Times