WASHINGTON — Dredging up a past that Newt Gingrich has worked hard to bury, the GOP presidential candidate's second ex-wife says Gingrich asked for an "open marriage" in which he could have both a wife and a mistress.
In an interview with ABC News' "Nightline" scheduled to air Thursday night, Marianne Gingrich said she refused to go along with the idea that she share her husband with Callista Bisek, who would later become his third wife.
The explosive interview was airing just two days before the presidential primary in South Carolina, a state with a strong Christian conservative bent, and as Gingrich tries to present himself as the strongest alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.
In excerpts of the interview released ahead the ABC broadcast, Marianne Gingrich said her husband conducted his affair with Callista "in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington" while she was elsewhere.
"He always called me at night and always ended with `I love you,'" she said. "Well, she was listening."
Marianne Gingrich, who was Gingrich's second wife, said Gingrich told her "Callista doesn't care what I do."
"He was asking to have an open marriage and I refused," she said. "That is not a marriage."
She also said Gingrich moved to divorce her just months after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"He also was advised by the doctor when I was sitting there that I was not to be under stress," she said. "He knew."
Gingrich, asked by a voter Thursday about his past mistakes, said questions about his past life were inevitable but that he'd long since sought forgiveness. He said he expected attacks when he got into the race.
"We knew we would get beaten up," he said while campaigning in Beaufort, S.C. "We knew we'd get lied about. We knew we'd get smeared. We knew there would be nasty ads and we decided the country was worth the pain."
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond flatly rejected Marianne Gingrich's account, saying: "It couldn't be any more opposite of the truth."
He told reporters that he wouldn't say anything against his ex-wife, but added that his two daughters from his first marriage had written to ABC to complain that the interview was "tawdry and inappropriate." He didn't answer questions about the specifics of the interview, directing questions to his daughters.
In an interview Thursday with The Washington Post, Marianne Gingrich said that within days of asking for a divorce, her husband gave a speech in which he stressed the importance of ethics and family values in American culture.
"How could he ask me for a divorce on Monday and within 48 hours give a speech about family values and talk about how people treat people?" she said.
Marianne Gingrich said she and Gingrich went to marriage counseling after he asked for the divorce, but that he wavered over what to do and asked for an open marriage to allow him to see whoever he wanted.
She said she decided to go public about the details from their marriage now in order "to get out there about who I was, so Newt couldn't create me as an evil, awful person, which was starting to happen."
Hammond, the Gingrich spokesman, told the AP on Thursday afternoon that the candidate had never asked for an open marriage.
"Divorces are very tough and people have very different recollections of how things happen," he said.
Marianne Gingrich has said that Gingrich proposed to her before the divorce from his first wife was final in 1981; they were married six months later. Her marriage to Gingrich ended in divorce in 2000, and Gingrich has acknowledged he'd already taken up with Bisek, a former congressional aide.
The House speaker who pilloried President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky was himself having an affair at the time.
As plans to air the interview were disclosed, Gingrich's campaign released a statement from his daughters, Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman, suggesting that Marianne Gingrich's comments may be suspect given the emotional toll that divorce takes on everyone involved.
"Anyone who has had that experience understands it is a personal tragedy filled with regrets, and sometimes differing memories of events. We will not say anything negative about our father's ex-wife," they said. "He has said before, privately and publicly, that he regrets any pain he may have caused in the past to people he loves."
Gingrich has worked in recent years to present himself as changed man, offering himself in this campaign as a 68-year-old grandfather who has settled down with wife No. 3 and embraced God through Catholicism.
Last year, he said it would be up to voters to decide whether to hold his past against him.
"I think people have to look at me, ask tough questions, then render judgment," he said then.
But he may not have been banking on his ex-wife, who has been silent so far in the 2012 campaign, to re-start that conversation.
A message seeking comment from Marianne Gingrich was not immediately returned.
Associated Press writer Shannon McCaffrey in Beaufort, S.C., contributed to this report.