Sparks flew on the stage of the CNN debate in Charleston, S.C., Thursday during the very first question. The charges, however, were not directed between the candidates, but between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and debate moderator John King.
King asked Gingrich to respond to allegations by his ex-wife that in 1999, Gingrich asked her to have an open marriage with him.
"Would you like to take some time to respond to that?" asked King.
"No, but I will," responded Gingrich, receiving loud, sustained applause from the audience.
"I think 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. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," he said.
The audience gave Gingrich a standing ovation.
When King asked if he was finished, Gingrich said he would like to be allowed to continue:
Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. 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.
My two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it, and I am, frankly, astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.
King pointed out that the interview was not done by CNN, but by another network.
"John, it was repeated by your network," replied Gingrich. "You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start the debate with it. ... Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor [Mitt Romney]. They're attacking me. I'm sure they'll get around to Sen. Santorum and Congressman Paul. I'm tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
After this speech, he again received a standing ovation. That's two debates in a row in which Gingrich has received such a strong outpouring of audience support.
Despite the dispute, Gingrich told CNN's Anderson Cooper after the debate that he thought King did a "great job."
"I thought it was a terrific debate for all of us," he said. "The audience was appreciative. I thought John did a great job. It was direct, it was tough. You could see the differences. I personally felt pretty good about it. I wanted to keep it at a pretty big level, stay on big themes and really talk about what America needs to do."
It was quickly pointed out that on matters of infidelities and the media's right to ask questions about them, the former House speaker has not always been consistent.
A May 18, 1998 CNN article, for instance, includes this choice nugget:
The speaker once again pledged to say during every public appearance that Americans have the right to know the truth about the Lewinsky matter and that the president is not above the law.
This story has been updated.
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