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Sex, South Carolina and conservative airwave-angst over “open marriage”

The morning began in a promising fashion for Newt Gingrich on Thursday. Rick Perry withdrew and endorsed him. And Rick Santorum was essentially declared the winner of the Iowa primaries. Both are blows to Mitt Romney.

But just as fast, ABC News released a snippet of Gingrich’s ex-wife, who said he wanted an “open marriage” so he could continue to have sex with his aide at the time, Callista, who eventually became his third wife.

Guess what all the talk was about the rest of the day on conservative radio?

Yup. Open marriage.

Rush Limbaugh and then Tampa-based radio host Todd Schnitt spent much of their broadcasts dwelling on the Gingrich story, which is essentially old news except for two facts:

1) ex wife Marianne was on TV talking about it (she’ll dish all after the tonight’s CNN debate Nightline),

2) the word “open marriage” became part of the political lexicon.

The conservative hosts blamed the “liberal media” for talking about the smear, which they then promptly talked about all day on conservative radio in South Carolina.

Schnitt brought up the fact that South Carolina just weathered a sex-scandal of sorts in the last Republican primary, in 2010, when now-Gov. Nikki Haley was accused by a blogger and another man of having an affair with them while she was married. Haley denied the accusations. Haley was endorsed, incidentally, by the wife of former Gov. Mark Sanford, who had left office after he had an affair. Jenny Sanford, incidentally, appeared on MSNBC this evening to talk about Gingrich’s situation. Most of Schnitt’s callers seemed sympathetic to Gingrich.

So did many of the callers earlier to Limbaugh.

Limbaugh lauded Gingrich for having had the “decency” to ask his former wife if he could see another woman, rather than simply cheat on her without permission. He also suggested that affairs are common, noting that about half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce.

'There's even a book on how open marriages can be good… I read it in the 70s,” Limbaugh said before dropping a reference to James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which ends with a cheater’s soliloquy by Molly Bloom.

Because South Carolina has such a heavy evangelical-voter base, many suspect the “open marriage” revelations will hurt Gingrich by diverting votes to Santorum or even Romney, who eschewed a “Personhood” family-values event Wednesday in Greenville, S.C. But Gingrich has acknowledged making mistakes in his previous two marriages, and many of his Christian conservative backers say this is old news.

Tuesday’s drama unfolded as the race appeared to be too close to call. Averaging five South Carolina polls, Romney garners almost 32 percent and Gingrich almost 31 percent – a statistical tie heading into Saturday’s election.

That makes tonight’s CNN debate, the Nightline tell-all afterward and the campaigns’ responses all the more crucial.