Character Issue Re-surfaces in GOP Debate

Candidates stand behind Gingrich, urge moderator to get to the real issues

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The character issue is back. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the central figure this time as he spent the first part of Thursday night's Republican presidential debate issuing a fierce and furious denial of charges by his ex-wife Marianne that he had asked for an open marriage in 1999.

After she refused, Marianne said in interviews with ABC and the Washington Post, they divorced. He married the woman with whom he was having an affair at the time, his current wife Callista.

CNN moderator John King asked about the allegations as the first question of the forum, and Gingrich replied that the story was "false" and "trash," and he denounced the media for publicizing the accusations. "I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country," he said. "I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."

His denunciation generated cheers and applause from the crowd at the debate in Charleston, South Carolina.

And his opponents gave him a pass. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said ,"John, let's get on to the real issues." Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said there are "issues of character for people to consider' but said, "This country is a very forgiving country." Rep. Ron Paul of Texas drew a gentle contrast to himself by noting that his wife of more the 50 years was in the audience, but then he let the matter drop.

It's unclear how the marital allegations will play out in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary Saturday. Voters in the past have tended to pay close attention to such character issues and how candidates handled them, and the outcomes have been mixed.

Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado was forced to end his Democratic presidential campaign in 1988 amid allegations of infidelity. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was plagued by accusations of adultery in his 1992 Democratic campaign but he managed to move beyond them and win the White House. And this year, businessman Herman Cain dropped out of the GOP presidential campaign amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

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