Fireworks at CNN Debate Over Gingrich 'Open Marriage' Charge

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, makes a point during the opening question of a debate at the North Charleston Coliseum Jan. 19, 2012 in Charleston, South Carolina.
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Newt Gingrich earned a standing ovation from a South Carolina crowd Thursday night when he angrily rebuked moderator John King for opening CNN's Southern Republican Debate with a question about claims he'd asked his second wife for an "open marriage."

"Would you like to take some time to respond to that?" asked King.

"No, but I will," said a visibly angered Gingrich, earning sustained applause.

"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 for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," he said.

The crowd in Charleston, S.C., leapt to its feet and cheered.

In an interview with Brian Ross of ABC News to be broadcast tonight on "Nightline," Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne said he had asked her for an "open marriage" rather than a divorce so he could continue seeing his mistress. Gingrich is now married to the mistress, his third wife Callista.

CLICK HERE to see a preview of ABC News' exclusive broadcast interview with Marianne Gingrich and then catch the full interview tonight on ABC News' Nightline at 11:35 p.m. ET.

PHOTOS of Newt's Three Wives

Marianne Gingrich said she did not watch the debate, but afterwards she told Ross, "My story is the truth. If he had really changed he could have stepped up tonight and said he was sorry. He never has."

But at the debate, Gingrich denied his ex-wife's story was true.

"Every person in here knows personal pain," said Gingrich, to more cheers. "Every person here has had someone who's gone through personal things. To take an ex-wife and two days before the primary [raise] a significant question in the presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. ... I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and open the debate."

After King noted that the report had not been on his own network, Gingrich said, pointing his finger, "John, it was repeated on your network, you chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else.

"Let me be quite clear," he added. "The story is false."

Gingrich accused the "elite media" of protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans, earning another standing ovation.

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King then asked the other candidates whether they believed Marianne Gingrich's allegation was an issue. Rick Santorum said, "I thank God for forgiveness, but these are issues of character to consider."

Mitt Romney earned applause by saying, "Let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say."

Ron Paul, the last of the candidates questioned, said that Republicans were often on the receiving end of attacks from the media, but also said, "I'm proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight."

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