Gingrich slams CNN for asking about ex-wife

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich participates in the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Jan. 19, 2012. AP

Updated 12:15 a.m. ET

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich slammed CNN host John King for asking about an explosive ABC News report claiming the White House hopeful asked his former wife for an "open marriage" before they later divorced.

"I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run of for public office and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," Gingrich said.

Gingrich accused CNN host John King of poor taste for bringing up the issue. "John -- John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it."

"Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife, and make it two days before the primary a sign question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine," Gingrich said.

ABC News reported Thursday that Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, says the GOP presidential candidate asked her for an "open marriage" after he became involved with the woman who became his third and current wife. Gingrich said the claim is false.

Marianne Gingrich told ABC News that Gingrich wanted the then-Callista Bisek, his current wife, as his mistress while keeping Marianne Gingrich as his wife. She said he admitted at the time to a six-year affair with Callista.

Gingrich proceeded to attack the media for being biased against Republican candidates.

"I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," he said. "They would like to attack any Republican."

The audience responded with a standing ovation and the other three candidates on stage did not touch the issue.

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said "John, let's get on to the real issues. That's all I have to say."

ABC aired the interview with Marianne Gingrich this evening shortly after the debate ended but little else was revealed.

Gingrich's two adult daughters, Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman, sent a letter to ABC news in defense of their father and scolding ABC for airing the interview.

"The failure of a marriage is a terrible and emotional experience for everyone involved," they write. "We will not say anything negative about our father's ex-wife."

Rick Santorum was asked by King about the accusations against Gingrich. Santorum failed to defend or disparage Gingrich. "I thank God for forgiveness," he said. "But the bottom line is those are -- those are things for everyone in this audience to look at."

Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign issued a statement before the debate was over agreeing with Gingrich that CNN should not have opened the debate with questions about his ex-wife.

"Our problem with Newt Gingrich is not that he lied to his wife but that he lied to the American people," Ron Paul spokesman Jesse Benton said.

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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