Fierce debate tops bizarre GOP campaign day in Lowcountry

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC/AP) - An aggressive GOP evening debate in North Charleston capped a bewildering day that included Rick Perry dropping out, Newt Gingrich facing stunning allegations from an ex-wife and Mitt Romney struggling to maintain a shaky front-runner's standing.

On Thursday night, Newt Gingrich told CNN's John King that he was appalled that the network would start the GOP debate with a question regarding controversy over his ex-wife.

"You and your staff decided to start the debate with this," Gingrich told debate moderator John King."The story is false."

Gingrich called the question about his ex-wife's allegations, in his words, "as close to despicable as anything as I can imagine."

The former speaker's second wife, Marianne Gingrich, says in an interview with ABC News that when she discovered Gingrich was having an affair he asked her for an open marriage.

When King asked Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum if Gingrich's past infidelity was relevant in the campaign each candidate gave brief statements but passed on criticizing Gingrich.

Paul blamed the media and said that he was proud of his wife of 54 years.

Santorum played aggressor for much of the night, trying to inject himself into what seemed increasingly like a two-way race with little more than a day remaining until the South Carolina polls open on Saturday. He accused Gingrich and Romney of "playing footsies with the left" when it came to health care. Both men rejected the allegations.

The issue of releasing tax returns has been talked about all week long leading up to the SC primary.

"Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks," Romney said. "As has been done in the past, if I'm the nominee, I'll put these out at one time, so we have one discussion of all of this.  I obviously pay all full taxes, I'm honest in my dealings with people -- people understand that. My taxes are carefully managed ... and uh, I pay a lot of taxes."

Romney has been criticized by his opponents for not releasing his tax returns. He isn't the only candidate to release his returns.

"Well, I do my own taxes, and they're on my computer and I'm not home and nobody's home right now until I get home. I won't get them," Santorum said. "When I get home, you'll get my taxes."

Ron Paul also hasn't released his returns and said Thursday that he doesn't plan to.

"I hadn't thought it through," Ron Paul said. "I don't have an intention of doing it, but for a different reason, I'd probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their income, because I'll be embarrassed I don't have a greater income."

On the military, Santorum said he thought it was "disgusting" that Obama was going to cut their budget.

"We need a strong military, one in the world that no one would test," Romney said.

Paul was the only candidate that said he would cut spending.

On a question regarding Obamacare, Romney made it clear that if elected president he would do away with Obamacare.

"We have to go for a complete repeal," Romney said. "But we'll replace it with one that covers people with pre-existing conditions."

Santorum said the fact that Romney and Gingrich have supported policies that were too similar to President Obama's health care plan, made both candidates not electable.

Santorum called Romney's health care plan he helped to implement in Massachusetts an "abject disaster."

Romney also cast criticism of Bain as criticism of the free enterprise and capitalism. Romney says Bain Capital's investments helped four businesses create about 120,000 jobs.

He acknowledges that some of the companies his former firm invested in cut jobs or closed but says overall his firm has created far more jobs than its cut.

On the economy, Gingrich said,"Parents, elect one of us and your kids can get a job and move out of the house!"

All the candidates did agree that they opposed an anti-online piracy law that some say is too aggressive. Romney said that the proposed law would be too "far threatening" for the Internet and said it was "far too intrusive."

Santorum disliked the law saying that the Internet was not a place "where anyone can do anything they want."

Thursday was a day full of developments in the presidential race. Two big shake-ups happened just before the debate and two days ahead of the First in the South Primary.

First, front-runner Mitt Romney found out that he didn't win the Iowa Caucus as previously thought. Final votes show Santorum as the official winner.

And second, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is now throwing his support behind former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich after dropping out of the race Thursday morning. He made the announcement in North Charleston, just miles away from where he announced.

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