Eleven cameras were trained on an empty stage. A handful of people sat in the stands of the TD Arena in downtown Charleston, nearly vacant except for two dozen reporters.
Not good enough for Newt Gingrich. He cancelled a planned speech this morning at the Southern Conservative Leadership Conference. He toured a local pediatric hospital, where his wife, Callista, read to a children's book to kids. Gingrich plans a media availability later today, at 2:30 p.m.
This morning, at the start of the news cycle, there was no upside for Gingrich to talk to the news media. Chances are, he'd be asked about his ex-wife's comments on ABC News where she said he had wanted an "open marriage."
Gingrich said at last night's debate that "the story was false."
But he said so much more than that. Like a debate Judo master, Gingrich took the question from CNN moderator John King and flipped it into an attack on the news media -- a favorite target of conservatives, who erupted with applause.
Still, Gingrich has made the questioning of a candidate's background fair game. When he criticized Mitt Romney's business background, Gingrich explained he was just asking questions about a centerpiece of his opponent's campaign. Gingrich has made family values central to his campaign push in South Carolina. So, by his own standards, it's fair game.
Right now, the issue looks like a winner for Gingrich. Outside the Charleston arena, a handful of Gingrich supporters waved signs along with a few protesters with placards that said "DON'T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA!"
Jan Broadhurst, a Gingrich volunteer from Leesburg, Florida, said her candidate got a boost from King's question.
"Newt stood up and fought," she said. "In the end, this won't hurt him. People don't care about a he-said, she-said that happened years ago."
Inside the arena's entrance, Romney's ubiquitous surrogate, New Hampshire's John Sununu, downplayed expectations after last night's debate. He threw the obligatory shots at Gingrich and said the Romney campaign, better-funded and organized than the others, is ready for a marathon.
"This is a long slog," Sununu said. "The whole campaign has been designed to go through the long slog."
Here's a transcript of the debate, courtesy of Federal News Service:
MR KING: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
MR. GINGRICH: No -- but I will. (Cheers, applause.)
I think -- I think 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. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?
MR. GINGRICH: Let me finish.
MR. KING: Please. (Boos, cheers, applause.)
MR. GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain.
Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. (Cheers, applause.)
My -- my two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC, and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it. And I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. KING: As you noted, Mr. Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is a subject of conversation on the campaign. I'm not -- I get your point; I take get your --
MR. GINGRICH: John, John, it was repeated by your network. (Boos.) You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with that. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. KING: Now, OK --
MR. GINGRICH: Now, let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says 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 probably get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans. (Cheers, applause.)