Say what you will about Republican presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich — his second ex-wife Marianne surely did. We’re not here to judge his character flaws. But he’s no dummy and he didn’t go into last night’s debate in South Carolina unprepared.
Put aside whether all’s fair in love and politics; delay for another day a debate about the role of the media in presidential politics. Let’s instead examine Gingrich’s performance and try to evaluate what conclusions voters will take away from his second ex-wife’s charge that Gingrich sought an “open” marriage; which is to say one where he — and presumably she — was allowed to sleep with anyone they chose.
Gingrich, known as a fiery, outspoken and perhaps shameless pol, came out on the attack last night, barely letting CNN’s John King get the question out before Newt reared up and pounced.
“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,” in case people watching didn’t realize he was deflecting his sins onto the media cur, “that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
He then went on to deny his former wife’s accusation — one that clearly would not sit well with the primary voters of South Carolina Gingrich needs to attract tomorrow to stay in the race.
But, crisis management friends, he didn’t stop there. Gingrich knows you eventually have to answer the question or the media will continue to press and hound. So Gingrich denied the charge.
The truth, he seemed to presume most voters would figure, likely lies somewhere in between. But then, key Beethoven’s 5th, he went one step further, announcing he’d release his tax returns, something frontrunner Mitt Romney has declined to do. You can be sure that Newt’s had his 1040 in his back pocket for weeks, waiting for just the right time to gain maximum advantage. In this case he used it as a fig leaf.
In terms of a performance, the whole effort was bravura. He came prepared, understood he’d get the question from an opponent if not the media, and had his messaging ready. He undoubtedly practiced the answer dozens of times, with his advisors and he agreeing on how high he should register on the outrage meter.
Gingrich won two standing ovations from the debate audience. Marianne will likely slip back into obscurity — she isn’t the only woman to rip Newt for his morals. Now we’ll have to wait to see if his crisis response won him enough South Carolina votes to remain in the fight.