NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Besieged by accusations from one of his former wives of marital problems, Newt Gingrich on Thursday night fired back, blaming the press for carrying the story and calling it "trash," as he and the three remaining Republican candidates held their final debate before South Carolina's primary on Saturday.
"To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine," Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker, said. "The story is false."
His furious denial came on one of the most astounding days in recent political history. First, Iowa's Republican Party released updated results that show former Sen. Rick Santorum appears to have won that state's caucuses, not Mitt Romney. And almost at the same time, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ended his campaign and endorsed Mr. Gingrich.
Mr. Perry's decision narrowed the field on stage for Thursday's debate to four candidates: Mr. Romney and the other three — Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul — who are vying to become the conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
With that mantle at stake, Mr. Santorum launched several biting new attacks at Mr. Gingrich, including accusing him of turning a blind eye to the House check-kiting scandal, which Mr. Santorum said he helped expose once he was elected to Congress in 1990.
"You knew about it for 10 or 15 years, because you told me you knew about it, did nothing because you didn't have the courage to stand up to your own leadership," Mr. Santorum said, crediting Republicans' exposure of the check scandal for the GOP's gains in 1994. "That had more, or as much to do with the 1994 win as any plan that you put together."
Mr. Gingrich didn't respond to that charge directly, but instead said he pushed numerous ethics charges against fellow members of Congress, including at one point House Speaker Jim Wright, Texas Democrat.
"Long before Rick came to Congress, I was busy being a rebel," he said.
Mr. Gingrich was the chief target of the night, with both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney saying he is too erratic to be a good nominee in a battle against President Obama.
"I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out what is he — worrying about what he's going to say next," Mr. Santorum said. "That's what I think we're seeing here."
Mr. Gingrich acknowledged he does "think grandiose thoughts."
"This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects," he said.
For his part, Mr. Romney, a successful businessman before he was governor, bristled at Mr. Gingrich's suggestion that the then-speaker and his "Republican Revolution" was responsible for the economic prosperity of the 1990s.
"I don't recall a single day saying, 'Oh, thank heavens, Washington is there for me,' " he said. "I said, 'Please get out of my way. Let me start a business and put Americans to work.' "
When the debate turned to abortion, Mr. Santorum directed his attacks at Mr. Paul, pointing out that National Right to Life Committee gave Mr. Paul a 50 percent lifetime rating based on his votes on pro-life issues, about the same, he said, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
"You should have the willingness to stand up on a federal level and protect what our Constitution protects," Mr. Santorum said.
Mr. Paul responded by appealing to states' rights, emphasizing that he opposes abortion but saying that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a federal right to an abortion, could be reversed if the issue was left up to the states.
"I see abortion as a violent act," Mr. Paul said. "All other violent acts are handled by the states."
Mr. Santorum launched his attack because he thought he had been targeted by Mr. Paul, but the congressman said that wasn't true.
"You are overly sensitive," he said.
When asked how they feel about the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) — legislation pending in Congress that would expand the government's ability to fight Internet piracy — all four said the legislation gives the government too much power to regulate the Internet, although Mr. Santorum added a caveat.
He said the while SOPA goes too far, the government needs to do more to protect property rights online.
"I'm not for people abusing the law, and that's what's happening right now," Mr. Santorum said. "The idea that anything goes on the Internet, where did that come from?"
But Mr. Gingrich blasted the law, pointing to the U.S. Patent Office and existing copyright laws as places companies can already appeal.
"The idea that we're going to pre-emptively have the government start censoring the Internet on behalf of special interests strikes me as precisely the wrong thing to do," he said.
The debate, the 17th of the campaign season, is the last one before South Carolina voters turn out to vote.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich appear to be battling for first place here, while polls show Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum battling in the lower tier.
Even as the debate was proceeding, Mr. Gingrich's campaign announced he had released his 2010 income-tax forms — once again putting the spotlight on Mr. Romney, who so far has declined to release his own forms.
"If there's anything in there that's going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination," Mr. Gingrich said. "And if there's nothing in there, why not release it?"
Mr. Romney said he would release his taxes in April, when he's done his 2011 taxes. He said he wants to release all of his forms at the same time, but he said he's not sure how many years of forms he will release — drawing boos from some in the audience.
Earlier this week, he said his overall tax rate is closer to the 15 percent levied on investment income, which is far lower than the rates many middle-class taxpayers pay for their wage- or salary-based income.
Mr. Paul said he doubts he will release his tax forms, while Mr. Santorum said he does his own taxes, they are sitting on his computer at home, and he will release them when he gets a chance.
Political television coverage Thursday was dominated by ABC's interview with Marianne Gingrich, Mr. Gingrich's second wife, who said the then-speaker asked her for an "open marriage" so that he could also be intimate with Callista, now his wife. Mr. Gingrich would eventually divorce Marianne and marry Callista.
At the debate, Mr. Gingrich bashed CNN host John King for leading off with "trash like that," and was interrupted by applause at his attack on the press.
Mr. Gingrich said ABC refused to accept the assurances of his personal friends that the accusations were false, and he accused CNN, ABC and the rest of the national media of "protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
The day started off with the news that Mr. Santorum had claimed a lead in Iowa's caucuses, which happened more than two weeks ago.
In the early-morning hours after the Jan. 3 caucuses Iowa's Republican Party announced Mr. Romney had won by eight votes. But some precinct workers immediately raised questions about the results.
On Thursday, the party released updated, certified results that showed Mr. Santorum now in the lead by 34 votes, 29,839 to 29,805. That showing also means Mr. Romney won 216 fewer votes in Iowa than he did in 2008, when he also claimed second place.
The Santorum campaign said the results showed he is the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney in the race.
"Thank you to the people of Iowa," Mr. Santorum said at the top of the debate.
Mr. Romney still claimed a victory of sorts, issuing a statement calling it "a virtual tie." But during the debate, asked in a lighthearted question what one thing in the campaign he would do differently, he quipped: "I'd have worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa, that's for sure."
Even as the Iowa results were being released, word went out that Mr. Perry was ending his campaign, saying he saw no "viable" path to win the nomination.
The three-term Texas governor said Mr. Gingrich has "the heart of a conservative reformer" and tried to reassure social conservatives that the former House speaker can lead the Republican Party despite his turbulent personal history.
"Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?" he said. "The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption."
He is the fifth major candidate to exit, following former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who dropped out Monday.
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