Newt Gingrich seized control of last night's GOP candidate debate in Charleston, SC with his first 4 words: "No, but I will," delivered in response to moderator John King's lead question for the night, asking if Gingrich "would like to comment" on his second ex-wife's allegation that he wanted an "open marriage."
Gingrich proceeded to disembowel King, CNN, ABC, and the "elite media," to the delight of the partisan crowd, figuratively throwing bloody chunks of meat to a starving crowd, which devoured them with relish. To its credit, CNN's cameras captured members of the audience leaping to their feet applauding Newt. Scott Conroy and Erin McPike of Real Clear Politics summarize the exchange:
Gingrich wagged his finger at King and condemned "the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media" -- and King in particular for bringing "personal pain" into a presidential debate.
"Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things," he said. "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."
King responded by reminding Gingrich that the interview with his ex-wife was not conducted by CNN.
"It was repeated by your network," Gingrich said, his voice rising in anger and his finger shaking at King. "You chose to start this debate with it."
Gingrich finally got around to declaring Marianne Gingrich's allegations "false" and said that his campaign had offered several mutual friends who could disprove the charges but that ABC declined to use them.
"I'm tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," Gingrich said.
The debate's kickoff encapsulated Newt's greatest strength -- his ability to think on his feet and go on the attack. Clearly, Newt had either given careful thought to how he might respond to the question, or his instincts are so powerful that he didn't need to. He shamed ABC and CNN for exploiting personal pain, the sort of pain known by every member of the audience. CNN:
"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," Gingrich told King, the moderator of the debate
The contrast could not be greater to Mitt Romney's response to the questions on his income tax return release, which also easily could have been anticipated and prepared for. Instead, for the second debate in a row, Romney appeared not to have thought through how to respond to easily-anticipated lines of questioning. RCP's summary:
When pinned down multiple times on the issue during Thursday's debate, Romney finally said that when his taxes are completed in April, he will release them.
Why not before, King wanted to know, so that Republican primary voters can consider any issues that emerge from the release?
"Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama," Romney said, complaining that Democrats make hay out of every personal issue in a "drip, drip, drip" fashion.
Gingrich wasn't satisfied and asked Romney, "If there's nothing in there, why not release it?"
King pursued the issue further, pointing out that Romney's father, George, was the first presidential candidate to release tax returns and offered 12 years' worth when he ran in 1968. Would the younger Romney offer up multiple years of returns?
"Maybe," Romney said, laughing.
After pausing to let the audience finish its jeers, Romney said, "I'm not going to apologize for being successful." He added, "I didn't inherit money from my parents. I worked hard."
Newt, again demonstrating superior political skills, released his own tax returns as the debate was getting underway. While not among the big rich, the way Romney is, politics has been very, very good to Newt:
The income tax return shows that for 2010, Speaker and Mrs. Gingrich owed federal taxes of $994,708 on an adjusted gross income of $3,142,066. $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.
Included in the wage and salary income reported on Speaker and Mrs. Gingrich's tax return is $450,245 in combined wages; $41,625 in income from speaking and board of directors fees; $6,853 in rental income from real estate holdings; $11,892 in ordinary dividends; $5,990 in qualified dividends; and $2,525,683 in income from partnerships and S corporations, including the Lubbers Agency Inc. and Gingrich Holdings, Inc.
For the year 2010, the Speaker and Mrs. Gingrich reported $4,184 in net short-term capital gains and $32,541 in net long-term capital losses. Over the course of the year, the couple also contributed $81,133 to various charities, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Santorum, despite the news that vote totals in Iowa actually gave him the number one standing in the Caucuses, did not pick up Rick Perry's endorsement when the Texas governor dropped out, and seemed to be fighting to stay in the race. He went on the attack against both Gingrich and Romney. Taking the stance of everyman, Santorum said that he does his own taxes, and the records are on his computer at home, so he can't release his latest taxes. Responding to Newt's call for him to drop out of the race to consolidate the anti-Romney vote:
"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich," Santorum said, arguing that he's the steady choice and Republicans shouldn't pick a nominee who might surprise them.
Ron Paul stressed his status as the only veteran on the stage, now that Perry has left, and stressed his status as a physician in questions regarding ObamaCare and RomneyCare. In other words, he no doubt held his own with his supporters and did little or no damage to his campaign, but scored no knockout blows.
Gingrich will almost certainly continue to gain in South Carolina and nationally. But the sordid details of his personal life cannot help him in the general election, where a majority of the voters will be female.
Update: Following he CNN-Tea Party Republican Debate CNN's Anderson Cooper spoke to Newt, who gave high marks to John King, for serving him up the slowball he knocked out of the park: (video)
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm joined by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
First of all, how did you think it went for you tonight?
NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I thought it was a terrific debate for all of us.
I thought the audience was really appreciative. I thought John did a great job. It was direct. It was tough. You could see the differences. And I personally felt pretty good about it. I think -- I wanted to keep it at a pretty big level, and stay on big themes and really talk about what America needs to do.
Once again, very smart of Newt. Now he is playing the good cop in his battle with the liberal media.