CHARLESTON, S.C. — If anything, Republican women interviewed here today seemed even more supportive than men of the way Newt Gingrich handled debate moderator John King’s question about ex-wife Marianne’s allegation that the GOP presidential candidate had asked her for an open marriage as their union was falling apart in 1999.
They definitely expressed less sympathy for Marianne, Gingrich’s second wife, who told ABC News and The Washington Post that her husband had wanted her to “share” him with Callista, now his third wife, as they were breaking up. Several women noted that since Gingrich was also married, to his first wife, Jackie, when Marianne got involved with him, his infidelity should not have come as a surprise to her.
And nobody posited that it must be hard for a woman who’d worn the same red suit at every public event for many of the years she was married to Gingrich to see her replacement accessorized by jewelry from Tiffany’s.
Of 15 South Carolina Republicans interviewed at the GOP Southern Leadership conference on Friday morning, only two had anything critical to say about Gingrich’s personal history, and many said his handling of the question had only increased their admiration for him.
“Last I checked, you don’t get divorced because you love each other so much,’’ said Charlestonian Jo Anne Knapp. “I loved it’’ when Newt Gingrich tore into King for asking the question.
“Everybody knows when you get divorced there are problems on both sides and two sides to the story,’’ said her friend Claire Crouch.
Janet Gallagher, also of Charleston, said she decided to support Gingrich on Thursday, after hearing the charges from his wife — though not specifically because of it. “A lot of the cheering people” in the opening moments of the debate, she said, “are not happy with the press; we Republicans tend to feel we get more of the darts” from them, and enjoy watching any Republican return the favor.
Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls, however, has been driven by men rather than women, according to a CNN/Time/ORC poll released Wednesday His support jumped 11 points among men since early January, while he’s made no gains among among women since then.
Marianne Gingrich told The Post that when her husband told her he was leaving, “He said the problem with me was I wanted him all to myself. I said, ‘That’s what marriage is.’ Of Callista, he said, ‘She doesn’t care what I do.’ ”
“He was asking me for an open marriage,’’ Marianne Gingrich said, “and I wouldn’t do it.” She said Gingrich already saw Callista as his first lady, though, telling Marianne, “In a few years I’m going to run for president. She’s going to help me become president.”
It’s not the first time Marianne Gingrich has made this charge, but the reaction to her remarks, just ahead of Saturday’s GOP primary in South Carolina, where Gingrich is surging in the polls, cannot have been what she intended.
She told The Post she gave the interviews because they couldn’t be avoided and to counter negative talk about her from the Gingrich camp. But it was after news of her interview came out that a Gingrich aide said she was still “probably very bitter.”
Another of the charges she has made for years is that her ex backed off on the government shutdown in 1996 after receiving an implicit blackmail threat from Bill Clinton, who she claims told her husband in a meeting that the two of them were “a lot alike.”
They are definitely alike in turning a history of infidelity into a referendum on the news media. Clinton saw his popularity surge when he blamed the media for reporting the allegations of Gennifer Flowers, with whom Clinton later admitted having a brief sexual relationship.
So, too, did Republicans give Gingrich a standing ovation at Thursday night’s debate when he told CNN’s King, “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like this.” Raising the issue, he thundered, “is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,’’ and is “destructive, vicious, negative.”
King’s motivation for mentioning his ex-wife’s comments, he said, was a desire to minimize any serious threat to President Obama’s reelection: “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
He also said his second wife isn’t telling the truth about his request for an open marriage. So have his grown daughters from his first marriage, whose mother he left for Marianne. “The story is false,” Gingrich said during the debate, adding that he had witnesses, though it’s hard to imagine who would have witnessed the former couple’s conversation about divorcing.
Anne Atwater King, sister of the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, said she is supporting Gingrich, but felt that the moment Gingrich smacked King down verbally was a unifying one for Republicans. “No matter who you were for, everybody was appalled’’ that the question was asked at all, she said. “It was tasteless, rude and tacky.’’
She disagreed, however, that it was a move out of the Bill Clinton playbook: “How can the Democrats criticize anything” about Gingrich’s personal life, she asked, when Clinton has retired the trophy on presidential infidelity?
At a later political rally held by political funnyman Stephen Colbert and former candidate Herman Cain, a Democrat in attendance, Cookie Washington, argued that Republicans hold a double standard when it comes to presidential morality, putting on a great show of their morality that is actually more hypocritical than Democrats who do not. “At least Bill Clinton never brought one of his mistresses back to Hillary’s bed,” she added.
Two of the women interviewed at the leadership conference earlier felt King’s question was a fair one and Gingrich’s personal life a legitimate issue: “I don’t care about it personally but that’s not something that’s going to float up and hurt Obama, who’s never cheated on his wife, so of course it’s an issue,’’ said Sherry Donobo, who added that she is undecided but thinking about supporting Ron Paul.
Her friend Elease Pickins, who is definitely supporting Paul, said she thought Gingrich’s response came off as an overreaction: “I didn’t think he should have attacked the newsperson; he was too rude. I think we should live in a civil society,’’ she added, saying King “had every right to ask that question because it was going to come up anyway.’’
Tripp Wiles, a Charleston attorney who’s still mulling whether to support Gingrich or Rick Santorum, said that while he didn’t think the former speaker had quite managed to turn his wife’s charges into a positive, “he was dead-on’’ in responding to them — and to an issue that most Christians, he thinks, already have decided to forgive him for. “The reason I’m pro-family is that I’m a believer in Christ, so I believe in forgiveness and redemption.’’