The only thing that mattered in Thursday night’s CNN debate was the first two minutes.
Newt Gingrich’s angry reaction to John King’s opening question about that allegations by the former congressman’s ex-wife—calling it “close to despicable,” and the handiwork of a “destructive” and “vicious” media–overshadowed everything that followed.
Gingrich seized the opening, saying he was appalled that CNN would lead off a presidential debate with such a question, and brushing aside King’s attempt to shift the focus to ABC, which conducted the interview with Marianne Gingrich. For King to make that the first question, over the economy and health care and everything else, may have been a blunder. Not since Bernie Shaw asked Michael Dukakis how he’d react to the rape and murder of his wife has an opening question so defined a presidential debate.
Voters will have to judge Gingrich’s defense, that lots of people have trouble in their personal lives and that he has sought forgiveness for conducting the affair with his current wife, Callista, while he was married to Marianne. He denied her account, repeated to ABC’s Brian Ross, that Gingrich had asked her for an “open marriage” in which he could continue to see Callista.
It’s possible that a boomerang effect could wind up helping Gingrich here. By dropping the Marianne bombshell (though she has said the same thing to print reporters) two days before the South Carolina primary, ABC risks generating sympathy for Newt with what might appear to be a late hit. Most people know Gingrich has a messy marital history; it’s baked into the cake. The heated exchange allowed Newt to exercise his patented move of ripping a media establishment that is none too popular with conservative voters.
Everything that happened afterward on the Charleston stage was an afterthought. But here goes.
Mitt Romney played defense on not releasing his tax returns before the primary, saying the “drip by drip” approach would just enable Democratic attacks. Of course, he’s doing the dripping by mentioning his 15 percent tax rate and could have released the returns months ago.
He also dodged a King question on why he won’t follow his father’s example, when George Romney ran for president in 1968, and release a dozen years of returns. He looked shaky at best.
But Romney had a solid night overall, even when he was being beaten up over his Massachusetts health plan and his past abortion record. And when Gingrich and Rick Santorum squabbled over their respective health-care records, Romney deftly portrayed them as a pair of Beltway insiders, underscoring his pitch as an outsider businessman.
Santorum had a couple of good moments, especially when he said he’d been the principled conservative on health care for 20 years while “these two guys”—Romney and Gingrich—“were playing footsie with the left.” (Another charge of sexual improprieties?)
At another moment, Santorum got under Gingrich’s skin by painting him as grandiose and recalling how some fellow Republicans tried to depose him as House speaker in a 1997 coup. Santorum knows full well that if Gingrich, who is surging in the South Carolina polls, wins Saturday, or comes close to Romney, his own candidacy may be toast.
But a day from now, no one will remember anything other than the first two minutes. The debate was a wash for Romney; Gingrich is the story, and Gingrich erupting over being grilled about his second ex-wife is the lead of that story. If he Newtralized that issue with his anger, he not only put it behind him, he may have saved his candidacy.