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Republican Debate: Presidential Candidates Face Off Ahead Of South Carolina Primary

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On the heels of Texas Gov. Rick Perry abandoning his campaign for the White House, four candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination are participating in a debate in South Carolina on Thursday night.

The event, as well as Perry's departure from the race, come with the Palmetto State's primary election two days away.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will take to the stage on Thursday night.

Below, a live blog of the latest developments to unfold in South Carolina.

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WASHINGTON - Marianne Gingrich on Thursday night reiterated her claim that her ex-husband, Newt Gingrich, asked her for an open marriage in 1998. "My story is the truth, and if he were really sorry he could have stood up and said so, but he didn't," she told ABC.

The remarks were part of an interview that aired in full Thursday night, but the open marriage conversation was released early in the day, causing a media frenzy.

Marianne Gingrich said she "knew" that her husband was unfaithful when he refused to answer yes or no when she asked him directly, but she said it was especially hurtful to learn later that Callista Bisek (now Gingrich) stayed in her bedroom in Washington with him, the same place her husband would call her from every night. "He always called me .. and always ended with 'I love you.' Well, she was listening," Marianne told ABC's Brian Ross, her voice dropping to a near whisper.

Hours earlier in South Carolina, the former House speaker ferociously attacked moderator John King of CNN when King asked Gingrich if he cared to respond to Marianne's account.

After a tirade against the "elite news media," Gingrich grew even more animated. "The story is false," he asserted, "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. [ABC producers] weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican."

-- Christina Wilkie

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Summerville Patch staff report from South Carolina:

The night belonged to hard-hitting Newt Gingrich and underdog Rick Santorum during the last debate before the South Carolina primary, according to audience members leaving the event Thursday evening.

While all four candidates faired well ... many debate-goers said Gingrich and Santorum stole the show.

And then there was Ron Paul who surprised a few people like Tricia Boccabello of Charleston.

"I think Ron Paul did better than I expected him to," Boccabello said. "He actually came across as being pretty cogent."

Read more

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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Following Thursday's debate, CNN moderator John King said that you're "damned if you do, damned if you don’t."

King was referring the forceful pushback he received from Newt Gingrich -- and the crowd filling the North Charleston Coliseum -- after kicking off Thursday's Republican debate with a question about claims from Marianne Gingrich, the candidate's second wife, that the former speaker asked her an open marriage in the late 1990s.

Gingrich, who slammed Fox News moderator Juan Williams just three days earlier over his line of questioning on racial issues, took a swing at King right out of the gate.

"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," Gingrich said. "And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."

Gingrich rejected King's explanation that another network conducted the Marianne Gingrich interview, which started gaining traction Wednesday night before clips were released Thursday.

"John, it was repeated by your network," Gingrich said. "You chose to start the debate with it. "Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it."

On a post-debate CNN panel, King said he knew Gingrich would challenge him, but that it was a matter people were talking about and he felt compelled to raise the issue.

"I don’t read minds," King said. "I don’t want to make a judgment about the speaker's response. I've been covering politics for 25 years. I understood that if I asked the question he was not going to be happy with it and he was going to turn on me."

CNN senior analyst David Gergen was impressed with Gingrich's response, calling it "one of the most explosive moments we have seen in debate history."

"It was also one of the harshest attacks we've had on the press that I can remember in a long, long time," Gergen said. But among the Republican faithful, attacks on the "media elite" can go a long way. And Gergen described Gingrich as taking King's fastball "smash[ing] it out of the park." The audience ate up Gingrich's response, twice standing to applaud.

Still, Gergen defended the moderator, saying that "John had a duty to ask that question."

-- Michael Calderone

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Newt Gingrich, in his closing comments, took aim at Barack Obama, calling the president a "Saul Alinsky" radical and urging Republicans to oust him from the White House.

"This is the most dangerous president of our lifetime," said Gingrich, "and if he is reelected after the disaster he has been, the level of radicalism in this country will be truly frightening."

Gingrich's willingness to spend his closing comments attacking Obama rather than his Republican opponents mirrored the strategy employed earlier in the debate by Romney, who, when asked about his greatest regrets of the campaign, said he wished he had attacked Obama earlier and spent less time going after his Republican opponents.

Romney's comment underscored his status as the Republican frontrunner, granting himself an opening to dig into the man he sees as his real competition for the presidency.

"In addition to beating Obama, we have to have a team victory in the Senate and the House," Gingrich continued, "so that the American people can send a signal in the January of 2013 that they want a very dramatic, very deep change."

Like Gingrich, Romney did his best to paint Obama as in the pocket of radicals, arguing that the president just yesterday bowed to the "most extreme members" of the environmental movement in rejecting a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

"You go across the country with regards with energy, and because he has to bow to the most extreme members of the environmental movement he turns down the Keystone pipeline, which would bring energy and jobs to America," Romney said to a smattering of boos that may well have been directed at the president.

-- Lucia Graves

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Perhaps the most noteworthy moment of Thursday's CNN debate was the first question moderator John King asked Newt Gingrich to respond to his ex-wife's allegation that the former speaker wanted an "open marriage."

Gingrich shot back that he was "appalled" King would begin a debate with such a question.

Nevertheless, after the debate, Gingrich told CNN's Anderson Cooper that he thought King did a "great job."

"I thought it was a terrific debate for all of us," Gingrich 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."

-- Amanda Terkel

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The Romney campaign emailed a slew of quotes from Newt Gingrich under the title "I think grandiose thoughts" less than an hour after the former House speaker uttered the line.

The email lists seven quotes from Gingrich, including ones in which he calls himself a "transformational figure" and "essentially a revolutionary."

In one article that was referenced, a 2005 interview with GQ, Gingrich said, "I first talked about doing all of this in August of 1958." When asked "all of what," Gingrich replied "saving civilization."

The email goes on to quote Gingrich comparing himself to various historical figures including Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Abraham Lincoln. One comparison is more vague -- the campaign points out that the South Bend Tribune wrote in 1995 that Gingrich called himself a "Viking."

-- Elise Foley

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Rick Santorum went after Mitt Romney Thursday on the issue of unauthorized immigration, saying the former Massachusetts governor supported pathways to citizenship before he opposed them.

"Mitt Romney has the position now that people have to go home, but it was just a few years ago he said there could be a pathway to citizenship," the former Senator from Pennsylvania said. "Now he's changed his position, I understand that. He's done that on a couple occasions."

Romney said his position has been consistent and he has always opposed allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.

"We're not going to round them all up and deport them, but we're also not going to give them a preferential pathway to become permanent residents or citizens," Romney said during the debate. "They need to go back home, apply for citizenship, apply for permanent residence, like everybody else."

In the past, Romney has made vague statements that others said support "amnesty," although he has said they were misunderstood.

In the 2008 McCain opposition research book on Romney, put out earlier this week, there are several quotes from Romney on the issue of "amnesty."

In November 2005, Romney said McCain's immigration plan was “quite different” from amnesty and was "reasonable."

Romney in 2005: "I think an amnesty program is what -- which is all the illegal immigrants who are here are now citizens, and walk up and get your citizenship. What the president has proposed, and what Senator McCain and Cornyn have proposed, are quite different than that." In March 2006, Romney supported "path toward citizenship" for illegal immigrants.

Romney in 2006: "Those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship."

Romney in 2006: "The 11 million or so that are here are not going to be rounded up and box-carted out of America."

Romney told Tim Russert in 2008 that his statements on immigration were at times taken out of context, specifically mentioning his quote that a play was "reasonable," which he said was different from endorsing it.

Since then, Romney has come down even harder on immigration. He, Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) all oppose any form of legal status for undocumented immigrants currently in the country unless they go back to their native countries first -- which often means they will never return.

Romney has said he would veto the Dream Act, a bill to provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children so long as they attend college or join the military.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the sole presidential candidate to say some path to legal status is necessary for the undocumented immigrants with longstanding ties to the United States. He drew some fire for that stance on Thursday, but said it was tougher than many believed.

"I believe in what I describe, most of them will go home," Gingrich said of undocumented immigrants.

-- Elise Foley

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@ HuffPostHill : TONIGHT'S WINNERS: Newt Gingrich, grandiosity TONIGHT'S LOSERS: John King, John King's soon-to-be tear-stained pillow

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The audience had to literally browbeat CNN into allowing Ron Paul to have a chance to get in on the "who has what abortion record."

"I'm a doctor," Paul said, not for the first time, in asking to get in on a vaguely health care-related question. Paul, as you may know, is pro-life. That said, his unique take on the role of the federal government trumps his moral disposition. (This, he endeavored to explain, by suggesting that laws cannot correct a person's moral failings.) He went on to contend that whenever the federal government expands their powers into health care, all of the side issues related to health care get more complicated.

Something in Paul's answer touched off Rick Santorum, and he was given the opportunity to assail Paul for his mere "50 percent record" as a pro-life voter -- "about the same as Harry Reid," said Santorum -- as adjudicated by the National Right to Life Committee.

But that's really beside the point when you are talking about a lawmaker who votes the way Paul does. "It's true we have a disagreement on how we deal with it," Paul said to Santorum, explaining that he votes according to his interpretation of the Constitution -- if the matter is something he feels is best left to the states, that's how he votes. That principle trumps his pro-life stance, full stop.

Paul also didn't understand why Santorum was so agitated by his answer. "I didn't direct any part of my answer to you," Paul said, "I think you're just over-sensitive."

-- Jason Linkins

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@ samsteinhp : our president individually started the earthquake in Haiti. he didn't care. it was part of his sordid world vision.

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Mitt Romney came under attack during the later portion of the debate for not being sufficiently pro-life during his time as governor. It's a charge that's dogged him before, in large part because he readily admits that he had an epiphany on the issue.

Newt Gingrich was the attack dog on this night. And while he said he would "accept" that Romney found the light on abortion, he pointed out that the Massachusetts health care law he passed wasn't exactly crafted during a Faith and Freedom Forum.

"After he became pro-life, Romneycare does pay for tax-paid abortions," Gingrich said. "Romneycare has written into it Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country, by name. It does not have any right to a life group written into it. He did appoint pro-abortion judges. And a branch of the government which included his appointees did agree to fund an abortion clinic for Planned Parenthood. All that occurred after he had become pro-life. Now, those are all facts, which we validated and essentially that's a legitimate part of the campaign, is to say, OK if you're genuinely pro-life, how come these things are occurring?"

Romney was asked for his response. And it's worth at least offering a verdict on the truth of each of his points.

"I'm not questioned on character and integrity very often," he said (NOT TRUE).

"Let's go through one by one," he went on. "In Romneycare, there's no mention of abortion whatsoever. The courts in Massachusetts, the Supreme Court, was the body that decided at all times if there was any subsidy of health care in Massachusetts that one receive abortion care." (True)

"Its true, somewhere in that bill of ours ... there's the mention of the word Planned Parenthood. it describes a person at a technical advisory board about payment structures. There's no requirement or no participation of Planned Parenthood in our health care plan." (True)

"I appointed probably 50 or 60 judges at the trial court level mostly. ... We don't have a litmus test for appointing judges. Asking them if they're pro-life or not pro-life." (UNKNOWN)

"This is not a time to be doubting people's words or questioning their integrity," Romney added, referencing the very type of campaign activity that he and his surrogates would direct at Gingrich tomorrow.

Gingrich was asked for his response and seemed perfectly content to leave it at that. "I'll yield to Senator Santorum," he said.

-- Sam Stein

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@ HuffPostMedia : Newt THANKS CNN — for giving him the biggest moment of his campaign, no doubt. #cnndebate

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@ HuffPostPol : Gingrich: This is the "most dangerous president of our lifetime" #CNNdebate

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@ HuffPostMedia : John King: 'I wish we could stay all night!' #cnndebate

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Mitt Romney tried to claim he's more of a common man than a privileged son. He claimed that his auto executive father, George Romney, gave him no inheritance.

But according to The Real Romney, written by two Boston Globe reporters, the candidate's father purchased a car for his son when he married his wife Ann. And later, after Romney's second child was born, George Romney helped his son buy a house in a "leafy Boston suburb."

The New York Times also quotes a C-Span interview from 2006 in which Mitt Romney admitted that he had received an inheritance from his father after he died. "I did get a check from my dad when he passed away," Romney said. "I shouldn't say a check, but I did inherit some funds from my dad. But I turned and gave that away to charity."

Romney donated the inheritance to his Brigham Young University. He and his wife both attended the school.

-- Jason Cherkis

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@ HuffPostMedia : Ron Paul introduces us to the 1960s, when 'drugs and the pornography' suddenly came on the scene. #cnndebate

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@ HuffPostHill : Did Santorum just say that God is allowed to be alive?

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@ lucia_graves : Quick! Can we get another old white man's opinion on abortion, please?

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@ howardfineman : Romney already bidding for Santorum endorsement.

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The Ron Paul campaign put out a statement about an hour into the debate calling the first question, which was about Newt Gingrich's ex-wife, "highly inappropriate" but calling out the former House speaker for other issues.

"We agree with Newt Gingrich that opening the CNN debate tonight with questions about the former Speaker's personal life is highly inappropriate given the many serious issues this country faces," campaign manager Jesse Benton said in a statement. "Republicans regularly bear unfair media attacks, our campaign included."

Gingrich responded angrily to CNN debate moderator John King when he asked about an interview to be aired on Thursday with Marianne Gingrich. Gingrich's ex-wife told ABC that the former speaker wanted an "open marriage" after she found out he was cheating. Gingrich chided King for asking the question, calling it despicable and part of a liberal media bias.

"I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," he told King. "I'm tired of the media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," he added later.

The other candidates mostly declined to talk about Gingrich's infidelity, although some mentioned repeatedly during other portions of the debate that they have been married to the same spouse for years. "I'm proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight," Paul said after the exchange.

In the campaign statement, Benton said Paul cares about "Gingrich's attacks on capitalism, the money he took from Freddie Mac and his support for TARP and the individual healthcare mandate."

"Our problem with Newt Gingrich is not that he lied to his wife but that he lied to the American people," he said.

-- Elise Foley

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@ MSignorile : Romney actually called his own health care law "Romneycare" #CNNdebate

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@ howardfineman : "I'm not questioned on character and integrity very often..." says Mitt, irked, and defends himself, well, against Newt abortion attack.

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In a sign of just how dramatically public opinion has swung against the Internet anti-piracy legislation up for a vote next week in the Senate, all four GOP candidates said Thursday evening they opposed it, though Rick Santorum seemed, entirely unsurprisingly, the least comfortable with the notion that, as he put it, "anything goes" on the Internet. (Google it.)

"I favor freedom. I think that we have a patent office, we have copyright law," said Newt Gingrich, rejecting "the idea that we're going to preemptively have the government start censoring."

Mitt Romney agreed. "I think he got it just about right," he said, calling the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) "far too intrusive, far too expansive," and worrying that it could have "a potentially depressing impact" on the growth and development of the Internet.

"If we can find a way to very narrowly go after pirating," said Romney, "we should do that."

Ron Paul noted that he was the first Republican to oppose the bill in the House. He said he was pleased to hear establishment Republicans coming around to his position. "Republicans unfortunately have been on the wrong side of this issue," he said.

Santorum, meanwhile, seemed to be penned in by the unanimous opposition. "I agree with everybody up here that it goes too far," he said, before launching into a defense of regulating the Internet in order to attack piracy. "I'm for free, but I'm not for people abusing the law and I think something proper should be done," he said.

-- Ryan Grim

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@ HuffPostHill : Newt Gingrich supports ANYTHING that results in John King being prosecuted.

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CNN debate moderator John King put all the GOP presidential candidates on the spot about their tax returns Thursday night, asking whether they will make their filings public.

It was an easy question for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who released his returns just as the debate began.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said he hadn't given the issue much thought and didn't have any intention of doing so.

"I'd probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their income," Paul said, referring to the wealth of the other candidates. "I don't want to be embarrassed because i don't have a greater income. Now, I mean, it may come to that. But right now, I have no intention of doing that."

He added that he has no conflicts of interest, doesn't talk to lobbyists and doesn't "take that kind of money."

Romney, who has faced the most pressure on this topic, said he will release his tax returns in April, if he's the nominee, and would "probably" release his returns from other years as well.

He quickly tried to change the topic, saying Democrats simply wanted to attack people for "being successful."

"And I have been successful," he added before hitting President Obama for playing "90 rounds of golf" while Americans are struggling in the tough economy.

King pointed out that Republicans are often calling on Romney to release his tax filings.

"Why not, should the people of South Carolina, before this election, see last year's return?" asked King to applause from the audience.

"Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama," replied Romney. "Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks. As has been done in the past, I'll put these out at one time so we have one discussion of all of this. I obviously pay all full taxes. I'm honest in my dealings with people. People understand that. My taxes are carefully managed. I pay a lot of taxes. I've been very successful. When I have our taxes ready for this year, I'll release them."

Romney recently revealed that his effective tax rate is 15 percent, below the rate paid by many middle-class families.

Gingrich did not directly attack Romney, saying, "Look, he's got to decide. The people of South Carolina have to decide. If there's anything in there that will help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination."

Santorum said he does his own taxes.

"They're on my computer and I'm not home," he said. "And there's nobody at home right now until I get home. When I get home, you'll get my taxes."

Finally, Romney refused to commit to the transparency and disclosure of his father, George Romney, who was governor of Michigan. In 1967, the elder Romney released his tax returns for 12 years.

"Maybe. I don't know how many years I'll release," responded Mitt Romney when asked if he'd follow in his father's footsteps. "I'll take a look at what our documents are." The audience booed him.

"I'm not going to apologize for being successful," he added. "I'm not suggesting these people are doing that. But I know the Democrats will go after me on that basis. That's why I want to release these things all at the same time. My dad, as you know, born in Mexico, poor, didn't get a college degree, became head of a car company. I could have stayed in Detroit like him and gotten pulled up in the car -- I went off on my own. I didn't inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard. The American way."

-- Amanda Terkel

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Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) laid into fellow GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich for their past support of core elements found in President Obama's signature health reform law.

After Romney and Gingrich said they would do everything as president to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Santorum argued that the two candidates don't have the credibility to address the sweeping health care law during a general election because of their past stances. He had harsh words in particular for the Massachusetts law enacted by Romney while governor, arguing that so-called RomneyCare was no different from the national law.

"It was the basis of ObamaCare, and it's been an abject failure," Santorum said, claiming the Massachusetts law has led to higher premiums and greater dependence on government-funded health care. Speaking to the crowd, Santorum added, "He's going to have to run against a president who is going to say, 'Look, look what you did for Massachusetts. I used your model for it.'"

Romney has been dogged throughout the primary season by the similarities between his own health care overhaul in Massachusetts and the one successfully pushed by Obama in 2010. In fact, many experts who helped create the Massachusetts law aided the White House in crafting the national plan.

"Is it perfect? Absolutely not," Romney said in reference to his Massachusetts law. "But having been there on the front line ... I know how to cut [ObamaCare], I know how to eliminate it and return the power to the states."

When the debate turned to Gingrich's health care history, Santorum and Romney knocked the former House speaker for defending an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, something conservatives have harshly criticized as an attack on personal liberty. Gingrich sang the praises of the individual mandate as recently as 2008.

"As Republican whip, I led the charge against HilaryCare in the House," Gingrich responded, referring to the health care reform pushed by then-First Lady Hilary Clinton during the 1990s. "The fact is I helped found the center for health transformation. ... You will see hundreds of ideas, none of which is in Barack Obama's program."

Turning to Romney, Gingrich said, "I can say, 'I was wrong and I figured it out. You were wrong and you didn’t.'"

-- Dave Jamieson

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@ howardfineman : Santorum begins his valedictory, takes satisfaction in making it to the "Final Four." He speaks in the past tense about what he had proved

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While the Republican candidates for president were getting ready for their umpteenth debate, the current occupant of the White House pointed to the GOP sparring matches as evidence that the other party is abandoning common ground they had with Democrats just three years ago.

And that rightward swerve will make this election tougher, and even more important than 2008's, President Barack Obama told a group of well-heeled donors at a fundraiser in New York Thursday evening.

This year is going to be as stark a choice as we have seen -- a starker choice than we saw in 2008. I mean, think about it. In 2008, I was running against a Republican nominee who agreed that we should ban torture, agreed that we should close Guantanamo, believed in climate change, had worked on immigration reform. And so as profound as the differences were between myself and John McCain, there was some sense of convergence when it came to some very important issues. If you’ve been listening to the Republican debates, they have moved. (Laughter.) I’ve stayed here. (Laughter.) They’ve gone in a different direction.

Now, that’s going to make for a hugely important, hugely consequential election -- partly because we need to win this election to consolidate all the gains that we’ve made over the last three years.

-- Mike McAuliff

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@ howardfineman : If life or politics consisted only of debates, Newt would be king, or more. But they are not, and Newt is not.

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Rick Santorum made a veiled reference to his role in blowing the lid off the early-‘90s congressional check-kiting scandal, dropping the bombshell that Newt Gingrich told him he knew about the illegality but purposely did nothing about it. For background on the scandal, where better to turn than Brian Thornton’s The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals from the World of Politics and Power. From page 83:
Members of Congress began writing checks they couldn’t cash with something resembling absolute freedom from punishment. The worst offender, Democratic Congressman Tommy F. Robinson of Arkansas, wrote 996 NSF checks; his House Bank account was overdrawn for sixteen months. Other members began kiting checks between their House Bank accounts and their personal bank accounts. The scandal came to public light when the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the House Bank late in 1991. At that point, a group of freshman congressional Republicans demanded an investigation. These men later became known as the “Gang of Seven” or the “Young Turks:” Scott Klug (Wisc.), Rick Santorum (Pa.), Jim Nussle (Iowa), John Doolittle (Calif.), Frank Riggs (Calif.), Charles Taylor (N.C.), and John Boehner (Ohio). When the House Ethics Committee conducted an inquiry, Gingrich smelled blood in the water. Many more Democrats than Republicans were implicated; of the top twenty-two check-kiters identified by the committee, nineteen were Democrats. Gingrich then pressured House Speaker Tom Foley to publicly release the names of all members who had written bad checks. Foley, who only wanted to identify the top twenty-two, capitulated and released the entire list. In an early sign of things to come, it was revealed that Gingrich had written twenty bad checks against his own account. In the end, eleven of the twenty-two worst offenders were defeated in the 1994 election; all but one were Democrats. A later investigation resulted in criminal convictions or guilty pleas for five ex-members, and for the former House Sergeant-at-Arms, Jack Russ.

-- Ryan Grim

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