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Fiery debate caps surreal day in GOP race; Perry drops out, backs embattled Gingrich as Romney clings to lead

The race for the Republican presidential nomination took a turn toward the surreal Thursday as Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out, Newt Gingrich faced stunning allegations from an ex-wife, and Mitt Romney struggled to maintain a shaky front-runner's standing.

An aggressive evening debate capped the bewildering day.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick 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 Saturday. He accused Gingrich and Romney of "playing footsie with the left" when it came to health care. Both men rejected the accusation.

The debate began a few hours after first word that Romney had been stripped of his victory in the Iowa caucuses, only to be stung a few hours later by Perry's withdrawal and endorsement of Gingrich.

Gingrich, in turn, was accused by an ex-wife of seeking an open marriage so he could keep his mistress.

"Newt's not perfect, but who among us is?" said Perry, abruptly quitting the race just before the first-in-the-South primary.

His decision to end a once-promising candidacy left Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul the remaining contenders in the race.

Nine hours after Perry exited one stage, the four remaining contenders walked onto another for their final pre-primary debate.

Gingrich blasted what he called the "destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media" and slammed CNN moderator John King, saying that he was "appalled" that King would begin a presidential debate on the topic of his ex-wife's accusations. The former House speaker said the question about his ex-wife's allegations was "as close to despicable as anything as I can imagine."

When King insisted he was only asking about a report aired by another network that was dominating the day's news, Gingrich turned on him, as well. "It was repeated by your network -- don't try to blame someone else," he said. "You chose to start the debate with it.

"The destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country," he continued. "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans." The audience gave Gingrich a standing ovation after he assailed the media.

Santorum, Romney and Paul steered well clear of the controversy. "Let's get onto the real issues, that's all I've got to say," Romney said, although he pointed out that he and his wife, Ann, have been married for 42 years.

All four remaining GOP candidates lustily attacked Obama, while Santorum in particular sought to raise his own profile.

Introduced to the audience at the outset, he mentioned his change of fortunes in Iowa, where an evident eight-vote defeat in the Jan. 3 caucuses was belatedly transformed into a 34-vote advantage -- though the Iowa Republican Party did not declare a winner.

Santorum jabbed at both Gingrich and Romney but seemed to focus more attention on the former. If Gingrich is the party nominee, he said, "you sort of have that worrisome moment that something's going to pop. And we can't afford that in a nominee."

In a reflection of the complex political dynamics of the race, first Gingrich and then Santorum challenged Romney over his well-documented switch of position on abortion. Once a supporter of a woman's right to choose, he now says he is "pro-life."

Gingrich didn't exactly question Romney's change in position, but he didn't embrace it, either, saying, "He had an experience in a lab and became pro-life."

Romney bristled. "I'm not questioned on character or integrity very often," he said. "I don't feel like standing here for that."

Recent polls, coupled with Perry's endorsement, suggested that Gingrich was the candidate with the momentum and Romney the one struggling to validate his standing as front-runner.

The former Massachusetts governor adamantly refused to explain why some of his millions were invested in the Cayman Islands, how much was there or whether any other funds were held offshore.

Under pressure from his rivals to release his income tax returns before the weekend -- a demand first made by Perry in a debate Monday -- he told reporters that it wouldn't happen. "You'll hear more about that. April," he said, a position he renewed during the debate to jeers from the audience.

Gingrich released his own tax return during the day, reporting that he paid the Internal Revenue Service $613,517 in taxes on more than $3.1 million in income. He also donated about 2 percent of his income to charity.

His effective tax rate, roughly 31.6 percent of his adjusted income, was about double what Romney told reporters earlier this week that he had paid.

Gingrich grappled with problems of a different, possibly even more crippling sort in a state where more than half the Republican electorate is evangelical.

In an interview scheduled to air on ABC News, Marianne Ginther Gingrich said her ex-husband had wanted an "open marriage" so he could have both a wife and a mistress. She said Gingrich conducted an affair with Callista Bistek -- his current wife -- "in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington" while she was elsewhere.

"He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused. That is not a marriage," she said in excerpts released by the network in advance of the program.

He said his two daughters from the first of his three marriages -- the ex-wife making the accusations was the second of three -- had sent a letter to ABC "complaining about this as tawdry and inappropriate."

In fact, the letter made no such accusations. Instead, Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman wrote to ABC that anyone who has endured a failed marriage "understands it is a personal tragedy filled with regrets, and sometimes differing memories of events."

Santorum, whose fortunes have ebbed since what appeared to have been a narrow loss in Iowa, pronounced himself the winner there after all when state party officials in Des Moines announced he had finished 34 votes ahead of Romney instead of eight behind.

Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said an official winner would not be named because the results were so close and some votes couldn't be counted.

Perry called Gingrich a "conservative visionary who can transform our country."

Perry's exit marked the end of a campaign that began with soaring expectations but quickly faded. He shot to the head of the polls when he announced his candidacy last summer, but a string of poor debate performances soon led to a sharp decline in support.

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