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South Carolina Republican debate: Surging Newt Gingrich scores (+video)

In the Republican debate Thursday night, the former House speaker won two standing ovations during one exchange alone. Three of four polls out Thursday showed Newt Gingrich slightly ahead of Mitt Romney for the lead in South Carolina.

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Republican presidential candidates (l.-r.) former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas participate in the South Carolina Republican debate in Charleston, South Carolina, Thursday.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

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If skill on the debate stage were the No. 1 qualification for president, Newt Gingrich would be measuring the drapes in the Oval Office right about now.

The feisty former House speaker took a bombshell – his second wife’s accusation that he had asked her for an “open marriage” – and turned it into a winner at the outset of Thursday night’s Republican debate in Charleston, S.C. It was classic Newt: Take a question you don’t like and turn it back on the news media, everybody’s favorite whipping boy.

Mr. Gingrich got to whip two outlets at once, ABC News for airing the interview Thursday with Marianne Gingrich – just two days before the South Carolina primary – and CNN, whose debate host, John King, led with the allegation.

Gingrich was prepared: “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.”

“I am appalled,” he continued, for good measure, “that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

Gingrich won two standing ovations from the North Charleston Coliseum crowd during the exchange.

The explosive opening to the debate capped a day like no other in the annals of presidential campaign history. The onetime hope of the GOP field, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich, giving the ex-speaker fresh energy. Three of four polls out Thursday showed him slightly ahead of Mitt Romney for the lead in South Carolina.

And in the strangest twist of all, the Iowa Republican Party declared Thursday that Rick Santorum, not Mr. Romney, was the actual winner of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, by 34 votes, although the party cautioned that some ballots were missing. Romney called the result “a virtual tie.” The former Massachusetts governor made light of his setback in the debate, joking that he wished he had worked harder to get a few more votes in Iowa.

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But the fact is, the Romney campaign has gone from looking like a juggernaut of inevitability to an enterprise with weaknesses – and perhaps not ready to do battle against President Obama. After struggling in Monday night’s debate over the issue of his tax returns, the wealthy Romney again looked defensive Thursday night.

When asked if he would follow his father’s example and release 12 years of returns, as George Romney did in 1968 when he ran for president, Mitt Romney offered just a one-word reply: “Maybe.” The audience booed.

Romney has been under the gun for days over his taxes, so far revealing that he pays at a lower rate than most Americans, since most of his income derives from investments. It has also come out that he has millions of dollars invested in funds set up by his former employer, Bain Capital, in the Cayman Islands.

Romney still pays US taxes on the income from those investments, his campaign says, but the Cayman angle doesn’t help Romney’s rich-guy image – and certainly presents a juicy target for Mr. Obama, if Romney is the nominee.

Thankfully for Romney, the Cayman Islands didn’t come up in Thursday’s debate. But in trying to contrast himself with Gingrich and portray himself as an outsider, he had another awkward moment, referring to himself as having “lived in the real streets of America.” Romney, a street guy? No, just that he’s from outside the Beltway – and is someone who has, as he put it, “led a business, started a business, who helped lead the Olympics, who helped lead a state.”

But Romney also got off a good bit of opposition research against Gingrich and his habit of portraying himself practically as President Reagan’s right-hand man.

“You're mentioned once in Ronald Reagan's diary,” Romney zinged. “In the diary, he says you had an idea in a meeting of young congressmen, and it wasn't a very good idea, and he dismissed it. That’s the entire mention. And I mean, he mentions George Bush a hundred times. He even mentions my dad once.”

Former Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania also dug into what he called Gingrich’s “grandiosity,” taking particular issue with Gingrich’s suggestion that he get out of the race – after Santorum had won Iowa.

“These are not cogent thoughts,” Santorum said. He called Newt a friend, but warned of a “worrisome moment that something’s going to pop.”

“We can't afford that in a nominee,” Santorum continued. “We need someone – I'm not the most flamboyant and I don't get the biggest applause lines here, but I'm steady. I'm solid. I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about. I'm going to be out there and I'm going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign.”

Santorum was reinforcing the points that Romney and his surrogates have been hammering this week: that Gingrich is undisciplined as a leader and would be a weak nominee by attracting attention to his messy professional and personal past.

Gingrich tried to defend himself, but it came across a little off.

“You're right: I think grandiose thoughts,” he said, perhaps meaning “grand” or “big.” Then he recovered a bit: “This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.

Thursday’s debate benefited from having only four candidates on stage, allowing for more direct back-and-forth among the competitors. But the fourth candidate, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, was left off on the sidelines much of the time, trying to get the moderator’s attention. At one point, the audience, too, came to his defense for air time.

But Representative Paul did have a winning moment on the issue of income taxes, as each candidate was asked when he would release his returns. (Gingrich released his as the debate was under way, in a bit of political theater.)

“I'd probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their incomes,” Paul said.

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Watch this video on key issues on the minds of social conservative or values voters in South Carolina.

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