With less than 48 hours to go before Republican voters in South Carolina decide who they want to nominate, the four remaining candidates hit the current president, the news media -- and each other.
The debate sponsored by CNN in South Carolina started out with a bang--surging Newt Gingrich was asked about an explosive report from ABC News that he had asked for an open marriage with his second wife before later divorcing her. And Newt fired back like only he can.
He vehemently denied the charge that he has asked for an open marriage and called the story "as despicable as anything I can imagine." He called out CNN host John King by name, saying he was "appalled" King would begin the debate with the marriage question.
"Let me be quite clear. The story is false," Gingrich said. "Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor. They're attacking me. I'm sure they'll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
Bashing the media has served Gingrich well. He has now surged twice this campaign, and each time his rising poll numbers have followed strong debate performances, often when he has been sharply critical of the national media.
Interestingly, following the debate Gingrich told CNN anchor Anderson Cooper that he "thought John did a great job."
Gingrich also skillfully changed the topic to taxes and released his own tax returns as the debate started showing he paid a 31 percent rate. That comes in contrast to Mitt Romney, who said earlier this week that he paid about a 15 percent rate and is under pressure to release his returns. Gingrich received a standing ovation for his attack.
Gingrich also got another boost before the debate started when Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed the former speaker. Gingrich also surged in the polls after he had a sharp exchange with Juan Williams during the Fox GOP debate Monday, and he may surge again in the next two days as a result of his testy exchange with King. With voters heading to the polls Saturday, his timing couldn't be better.
Santorum had his best debate yet, with some sharp words in a head-to-head with Gingrich. Both Santorum and Gingrich are hoping to be the last conservative in the race as an alternative to Romney.
"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. He -- he handles it very, very well. 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," Santorum said.
"Newt's a friend. I love him," he continued. "But at times, you've just got, you know, sort of that, you know, worrisome moment that something's going to pop. And we can't afford that in a nominee. We need someone -- I'm not the most flamboyant, and I don't get the biggest applause lines here. But I'm steady. I'm solid. I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about. I'm going to be out there. I'm going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign. "
The former Pennsylvania senator also took the former House speaker to task for his leadership style. "It was an idea a minute, no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together," Santorum said.
Gingrich had his comebacks. "I spent 16 years on a grandiose project called creating a Republican majority in the House....You're right, I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things. And we need leadership prepared to take on big projects."
"I think, long before Rick came to Congress, I was busy being a rebel, creating the Conservative Opportunity Society, developing a plan to win a majority in the Congress," he added.
Santorum also hit Romney for the health care law he signed while he was the governor of Massachusetts, later used as a model for President Obama's signature legislative achievement of his presidency.
For the moment, Gingrich holds the superior position as the conservative alternative to Romney as the South Carolina primary vote nears .
Romney is usually silky smooth on the debate stage, but his performance Thursday night had some awkward moments, notably when he was asked about an ad his campaign had run against Gingrich, calling him an unreliable leader. After responding with boilerplate remarks about needing to send a business leader to Washington, Romney acknowledged he didn't answer the question and then went on to make more unrelated comments.
Romney was also forced to talk about his tax returns and say unequivocally that he would release his tax returns if he becomes the nominee. He has slowly come to that position, first saying he would not release them and then saying he might and then saying he probably would release last year's return. On Thursday night, he said he would release multiple years.
"You know, I don't know how many years I'll release. I'll take a look at what the -- what our documents are and I'll release multiple years. I don't know how many years, and -- but I'll be happy to do that," Romney said. Romney was booed for his answer.
The former Massachusetts governor is reportedly worth as much as $250 million and he is uncomfortable talking about his personal wealth. Romney did have a good line with Gingrich, noting that Gingrich was House speaker for 4 years while Romney was in business for more than two decades. "You are not going to get credit for my 25 years," Romney said.
But that was not enough to really block Gingrich's momentum going into South Carolina and the race now appears to be headed to a bruising fight.
The Texas lawmaker was unable to break through the din once again. He was essentially a non-factor in the debate, despite his strong showing in a South Carolina poll released earlier in the day. Paul was so ignored by moderator John King that the audience shouted his name when they wanted him to be given a chance to answer a question about abortion. "They want you in on this issue. Would you like in on this issue?" King asked Paul. "John, once again, it's a medical subject and I'm a doctor." When he did get a chance to speak, he repeated his stock answer.
When the sun came up in South Carolina Thursday, Rick Perry was scheduled to be on the debate stage that evening. But he dropped out before the debate even began because he said he did not see a path forward for him to win the nomination.