CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates tore into each other on Thursday at a raucous campaign debate two days before the South Carolina primary that may decide the nomination race.
Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all found themselves on the defensive at a debate that was the final chance for rivals to chip away at front-runner Romney's lead in South Carolina. Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, had perhaps the best shot.
He angrily denied charges from a former wife that were clearly aimed at damaging him in South Carolina. Ex-wife Marianne Gingrich accused him this week of asking her for an "open marriage" when he was having an affair.
Gingrich deftly defended himself with the kind of muscle-bound debate performance that has buoyed his up-and-down campaign all year.
"I think the disruptive, vicious, negative nature of the news media makes it harder to govern this country," Gingrich fumed. "I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."
But the fact that character issues were aired publicly, as well as sharp questions about his 1990s tenure as House speaker, could remind voters of the baggage Gingrich carries and damage his hopes.
Eager to upset the front-runner, Gingrich released his most recent tax returns, a reminder that the multi-millionaire Romney still had not produced his own.
But Romney will take a huge step toward claiming the Republican nomination if he wins on Saturday after his New Hampshire win on January 10 and his near-victory in Iowa on January 3.
Romney pledged to release his own taxes in April and looked aggravated when there was a smattering of boos from the crowd.
"I'm not going to apologize for being successful," he said.
Santorum, who learned on Thursday that he actually won the Iowa caucuses on January 3 by 34 votes, went into the campaign looking to tear down his top rivals in South Carolina: Gingrich and Romney.
He gave a blistering critique of Gingrich's tenure as House speaker, calling him "grandiose" and suggesting he has behaved erratically when asked to respond to Gingrich's claim that Santorum lacks the ability to perform as a political leader on a grand scale.
"I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and ... worrying about what he's going to say next," Santorum said.