A furious Newt Gingrich shot down claims Thursday night by his ex-wife that he asked for an “open marriage” with his mistress — and current wife — in the ’90s.
“Now, let me be quite clear. The story is false,” Gingrich said at the CNN Republican debate, referring to the interview set to air hours later ABC’s “Nightline.”
“We offered several [friends] to ABC to prove it was false, they weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican.”
In the interview, Marianne Gingrich said her then-husband was having an affair with a House staffer, Callista Bisek, and wanted to continue the relationship.
“He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused,” Marianne Gingrich said in the interview, which was set to air after another Republican debate.
She added that her husband’s hanky-panky was even conducted in the bedroom of their Washington, D.C., pad: “He always called me at night and always ended with ‘I love you,’” Marianne Gingrich said. “Well, she was listening.”
Gingrich doesn’t have the “moral character” to be president, she added.
After CNN moderator John King opened the debate with a question about the accusation, Gingrich slammed both ABC and CNN, and called its timing — two days before the South Carolina primary — “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
“I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate,” he said, earning him a standing ovation from the audience.
Even GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney came to his defense, telling King, “let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say."
Some observers said the former House speaker is finished following the public revelations of wife No. 2, just as polls named him the front-runner in Saturday’s GOP primary in South Carolina.
“I think he’s done. There’s very little time for him to recover or rehabilitate his image,” said Mark Macias, a crisis communications expert, adding that Gingrich’s decision not to give a swift denial could turn off conservative voters.
The couple ended their 18-year marriage in 2000, and soon after, Gingrich married Bisek.
Marianne Gingrich said she expressed “shock” over his affair, and was perplexed he gave speeches about family values just after asking her for a divorce.
Gingrich, 68, told reporters Thursday he was “not going to say anything negative about Marianne.” His daughters from his first marriage had already told ABC that Gingrich “regrets any pain he may have caused in the past to people he loves.”
This isn’t the first indiscretion for Gingrich, who had an affair with Marianne while still married to his first wife, Jackie, and then divorced her after she underwent surgery for ovarian cancer.
Republicans were ready to both defend and pounce on Gingrich. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race, endorsed him over Romney.
But Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) told reporters “the whole country would be in danger” if Gingrich became president.
Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College, said Gingrich probably won't get the presidential nod, and his ex-wife's words will add "more fuel to the fire."
"People are really interested in the salacious aspects of a candidate's lifestyle, so this is going to be a problem for Gingrich over the weekend," Chandler said.
Some New Yorkers, however, said they don’t expect Gingrich to win the nomination.
“It’s really, really hypocritical,” said Alexander Soroka, an Upper West Side Democrat.
(With Tim Herrera and Marc Beja)