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Amid a Republican whirlwind, the race for the GOP nomination has been rocked by a series of developments just days before South Carolina’s crucial primary.

A momentous day began with news that Mitt Romney lost the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus to Rick Santorum, despite earlier reports that he had been leading 2-0 prior to South Carolina. Instead, the re-count reset Romney’s score to 1-1 just as he faced a frustrating week of dodging questions about his wealth and income taxes and decisions he made while running Bain Capital.

Santorum has tried to muster a last-minute surge of his own – as the Tax Policy Center in Washington revealed his tax plan would expand the U.S. budget deficit by $1.3 trillion in 2015. He also received an endorsement from Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

Then Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Newt Gingrich – just days after Sarah Palin said she would cast her ballot for Gingrich if she were a South Carolina voter.

“There is no viable path forward for me in this 2012 campaign,” Perry said. “I am endorsing Newt Gingrich. We need bold conservative leadership that will take on the entrenched special interests and bring our country back. I believe the mission is greater than the man.”

Meanwhile, at least four new polls showed Gingrich gaining on Romney in South Carolina before the state’s primary. Perry’s endorsement came on the heels of news reports that Gingrich’s second ex-wife, Marianne, whom Gingrich divorced in 2000, accused the former House speaker of seeking permission to keep a mistress on the side so he could continue his affair with Callista Bisek, his third wife.

“He was asking to have an open marriage and I refused … that I accept the fact that he has somebody else in his life. That is not a marriage,” she told ABC News in an interview that aired after the CNN/Southern Republican Leadership Conference debate in North Charleston, S.C.

The debate began as CNN’s John King repeated Marianne Gingrich’s accusation and asked Gingrich, “Would you like to discuss that, Mr. Speaker?”

“No, but I will,” replied Gingrich.

The crowd erupted in applause as he scolded CNN:

“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.

“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 a primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. 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 noted that the story did not originate with CNN.

“It was repeated by your network,” Gingrich replied, growing increasingly agitated. “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.”

Gingrich ended the exchange by calling the allegations “false.”

Shortly after the exchange, Santorum lashed out at Romney over his Massachusetts health-care reform, saying Romney is unelectable because he created “a government-run health-care system that was the basis of Obamacare.”

Romney claimed that his plan showed “compassion for people who don’t have insurance.”

“We have to go after complete repeal, but we’ll replace it,” Romney said of Obamacare, suggesting implementation of market-based health care that accepts people with pre-existing conditions and allows individuals to obtain insurance without going through employers.

Later in the debate, Romney answered criticism from Republican rivals – especially from Gingrich – over his record at Bain Capital.

“I know we’re going to get attacked from the left, from Barack Obama, on capitalism,” he said. “I find it kind of strange, on a stage like this with Republicans, having to describe how free enterprise and private equity works.”

Addressing a hot issue that has plagued the Romney campaign in recent days, King asked all the contenders when they planned to release their tax returns.

Gingrich replied that he had posted his tax information online prior to the debate.

Ron Paul responded, “I had not thought it through. I don’t have an intention of doing it, but for a different reason. I’d probably be embarrassed by my financial statement. I don’t want to be embarrassed that I don’t have a bigger income. … I don’t think people need that because nobody’s challenging me because I have no conflict of interest. I don’t talk to lobbyists, and I don’t take that kind of money.”

The crowd roared in approval at Paul’s position on refusing to deal with lobbyists.

Romney said he would release his tax information in April if he is the GOP nominee.

“When my taxes are complete for this year – and I know if I’m the nominee the president’s going to want to insist that I show what my income was last year – I’ll release my returns in April and probably for other years as well,” he said. “If I’m the nominee, I’ll put these out at one time, so we can have one discussion of all of this.”

Santorum explained, “I do my own taxes. They’re on my computer, and I’m not home. So, I have nobody at home right now. Until I get home, I won’t get them. When I get home, you’ll get my taxes.”

During the debate, the candidates were also asked: “If there’s one thing you could do over, what would it be?”

Referring to today’s Iowa upset, Romney replied, “I would have worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa, that’s for sure.”

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