Just when his campaign appeared to be surging, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich hit another huge snag Thursday as his former wife Marianne went public with a sordid story of how he sought an "open marriage" prior to divorcing her.
Marianne told ABC's Nightline, in an interview to be broadcast Thursday, that after a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, Newt told her he "wanted an open marriage and I refused." She also said her then-husband sought a divorce shortly after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
She told the Washington Post that in 1999, Gingrich gave a speech to the Republican Women Leaders Forum in Erie, Pa., praising the moral virtues of the Founders, after issuing the marriage ultimatum. "When a liberal talks about values, will he or she actually like us to teach American history?" Gingrich said at the forum. "Will they actually like young people to learn that George Washington was an ethical man? A man of standards, a man who earned the right to be father of this country?"
Marianne Gingrich told the Post, "How could he ask me for a divorce on Monday and within 48 hours give a speech on family values and talk about how people treat people?"
Gingrich called the interviews with Marianne, who was his second wife, "tawdry and inappropriate." As his third wife Callista (with whom he was having an affair at the time of his 1999 request to Marianne) stood near him, he refused to answer questions about the topic.
But the issue immediately became 'Topic A' on the political circuit. "'Open marriage' is such a hot story that it's going to play out without help from anyone else," including the other GOP presidential candidates, says Geoff Garin, a prominent Democratic pollster who is working for a political action committee that supports President Obama. "[Gingrich] has to admit, as he has, that he has serious flaws, and try to persuade people that he is a changed person and hope like hell that ideology trumps morality."
The problem, Garin adds, is that the open marriage story reminds voters why many didn't like Gingrich in the past—"how untrustworthy and how unethical he is" and "that he's just not a likable guy."
His opponents will point out that he had ethical trouble in the House of Representatives and has admitted that he was having an affair at the same time he was backing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton because Clinton lied about having an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich allies say the two situations were different because Gingrich didn't lie under oath while Clinton did. Other critics say Gingrich's marital situation shows that he believes that normal rules don't apply to him. In the past, Gingrich has addressed questions about his personal life with the comment that he has asked God for forgiveness and has changed his ways.
The revelation could hurt Gingrich, particularly among women voters, many of whom were skeptical of him before the story broke, along with social conservatives and "values voters." All of them are vital in South Carolina, which holds its Republican presidential primary Saturday.
Marianne's story is engulfing the recent positive developments for Gingrich—his rise in the polls in South Carolina, bringing him within striking distance of front-runner Mitt Romney, along with his excellent performances in recent debates, including one earlier this week in the Palmetto State.
Gingrich also received some good news in the form of an endorsement Thursday from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who suddenly dropped out of the GOP presidential race and whose support had the potential to consolidate some additional conservative voters. Also, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she would vote for Gingrich if she lived in South Carolina. Also helping the former Speak of the House is Romney stumbling over the rate he pays in taxes and the revelation of large amounts of money he has been keeping in foreign offshore accounts.