From marital fidelity to tax returns, everything personal was on the table Thursday night in the final Republican debate before Saturday's pivotal South Carolina primary.
Nine candidates will be listed on the ballot in alphabetical order, but only four of them are actively seeking the GOP nomination:Newt GingrichRon PaulMitt RomneyRick SantorumThe following candidates remain on the ballot but have ended or suspended their campaigns for the nomination:Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Rick Perry
Rick Perry might be relieved that he wasn't on stage.
The day began with Perry suspending his campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich. Then Iowa announced a new winner -- Rick Santorum, instead of Mitt Romney -- in its Jan. 3 caucus, and polls showed that South Carolina is nearly a dead heat.
It ended with a rollicking two-hour debate at North Charleston Coliseum that could decide the outcome of Saturday's vote.
The first question stemmed from the day's other big news story from the campaign trail: Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne Gingrich said they divorced after she wouldn't go along with his desire for an open marriage.
When CNN moderator John King asked Gingrich about it as the night's first question, he ripped into King.
"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."
Gingrich said his two daughters wrote to ABC News telling the network that its story was wrong and called the story false. The audience roared in support of him.
When given a chance, his rivals hesitated to pile on. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has vied with Gingrich for the state's evangelical vote, said the country is forgiving and he thanks God for forgiveness.
"These are issues of character for people to consider," he said.
Santorum later had far harsher words for how Gingrich conducted himself as House speaker. "Four years into his speakership, he was thrown out by his leadership. … It was an idea-a-minute, no discipline, no ability to be able to put things together."
Ron Paul said the candidates too often are attacked by the media, then added, "I'm very proud of the fact that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who saw his lead in South Carolina dissolve into a near-tie with Gingrich since the debate Monday in Myrtle Beach, went the easiest on his rival after King's question. "John, let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say."
It was the end of a tough day for Romney, who once held a double-digit lead in many of the polls. Gingrich was thought to be on the rise after his good debate performance Monday, and Santorum's seeming inability to gain traction here combined with Perry's departure have made this a race after all.
It remains to be seen how the accusations leveled by Gingrich's ex-wife, and his response to them, will play to social conservatives in South Carolina, who finally appeared to be coalescing behind an anti-Romney candidate.
Before the first commercial break, King announced that Gingrich's campaign has released his income tax returns, and that they were online. Afterward, Charleston retiree John Marcoux asked all of them when they would release their taxes. "One hour ago," Gingrich quipped.
Romney said he would release tax returns in April, but the audience murmured when he said only "maybe" when asked if he would commit to releasing 12 years' worth of them, as his father did when he ran for office in 1967.
Paul, a Texas congressman whose ads have contributed to Santorum's struggles, said his congressional income statements show that his financial picture and his tax returns would be "embarrassing" compared with those of his higher-earning rival.
Santorum said he would but they're on his home computer "and no one is home."
Asked what they would do over in the campaign, Gingrich said he would have skipped the opening three months when he hired regular consultants and tried to be an ordinary candidate, a reference to his campaign's sputtering start.
Romney replied, "I'd have worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa, that's for sure."
Santorum said he wouldn't change a thing. "For me to be standing here in the final four is about as amazing thing that I could consider happening." Paul said he could still learn a lot about better delivering his message, "which I think is a great message."
Gingrich: B+ Seemed very much at home as he often does at debates, even when asked about his ex-wife's accusations that he wanted an open marriage. Called question "despicable." Crowd responded favorably to him.
Santorum: B Pitched himself as a "conviction conservative" who has beaten Democratic incumbents in a swing state. Went after Gingrich strongly. Accused former House Speaker of "playing footsie" with the left on health care.
Paul: B- Often seemed like the odd man out, declining to jab much with the others. Instead emphasized Constitution-centric, America-first message. Scored when he said troops coming home face "epidemic of suicides."
Romney: C+ Tried not to lose more than to win. Awkward moments when asked about tax return. On the defensive about business deals, health care. Was applauded for saying he would not apologize for being successful.
Newt Gingrich: Southern Republican Leadership Conference, 66 George St., Charleston; 9 a.m.; MUSC Children's Hospital, 169 Ashley Ave., Charleston, 10:30 a.m.; 1650 Blvd. St., Orangeburg, 2:30 p.m.; town hall and book signing, Patriots Point, Mount Pleasant, 8 p.m.
Mitt Romney: 3152 Augusta Highway, Gilbert, 11 a.m.; Charleston Area Convention Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive, 3:45 p.m.; 22 Graves Drive, Greenville, 8:30 p.m.
Ron Paul: Charleston International Airport, 11:15 a.m.; North Myrtle Beach Grand Strand Airport, 12:30 p.m.; Florence Regional Airport, 1:30 p.m.; 1897 Jefferson Davis Highway, Warrenville, 3:15 p.m.; Greenville Downtown Airport, 4:45 p.m.; 800 Gervais St., Columbia, 9 p.m.
Rick Santorum: 4952 Sunset Blvd., Lexington, 11 a.m.; 1975 Highway 21 Bypass, Fort Mill, 1:45 p.m.; 3597 Boiling Springs Road, Boiling Springs, 4:30 p.m.; and The Citadel, Charleston, Citadel Patriot Dinner, 7:15 p.m., and rally at 8 p.m.
Romney: 17 College St., Greenville, 8:45 a.m.; State Fairgrounds, Columbia, 7:45 p.m.
Newt Gingrich now leads Mitt Romney in three of four polls released Thursday:
Public Policy Polling
Newt Gingrich 34%
Mitt Romney 28%
Ron Paul 15%
Rick Santorum 14%
Rick Perry 5%
Buddy Roemer 3%
NOTE: Poll based on 379 likely Republican primary voters Wednesday. Margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
American Research Group
Newt Gingrich 33%
Mitt Romney 32%
Ron Paul 19%
Rick Santorum 9%
Rick Perry 4%
NOTE: Poll based on survey of 600 likely Republican primary voters Tuesday and Wednesday. Margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Newt Gingrich 33%
Mitt Romney 31%
Ron Paul 15%
Rick Santorum 11%
Rick Perry 2%
NOTE: Survey of 750 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Wednesday. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points
Mitt Romney 37%
Newt Gingrich 30%
Ron Paul 11%
Rick Santorum 10%
Rick Perry 4%
NOTE: Poll based on survey of 600 likely Republican primary voters Tuesday and Wednesday. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.1 percent.
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About the GOP primary
Who can vote and where?Any registered voter can cast a ballot Saturday. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. across the state.What should I bring?Voters must have either their signed voter-registration card, a South Carolina driver's license or a photo ID issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. (The state's new Voter ID law won't be in effect Saturday).How can I follow what's going on Saturday?Primary election updates and other information, including candidate profiles and where the candidates stand on the issues, can be found at postandcourier.com.