The only thing breaking coordination rules here is Stephen Colbert's outfit.

"God bless you all! And God bless Citizens United!"

So roared a beaming Stephen Colbert, arms spread wide, on his show a week ago. He'd just handed over control of his super-PAC to his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart—just in time to unveil an exploratory committee to run for "president of the United States of South Carolina." Colbert, of course, won't succeed in his comical presidential bid. But the latest stunt in his long-running super-PAC gag intentionally laid bare what campaign-finance advocate Fred Wertheimer calls "the campaign finance scandal of the 2012 elections."

In the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision nearly two years ago, super-PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to support or attack candidates, but with one catch: They can't coordinate with the candidates they're backing. In other words, Colbert can't tell Stewart how to run the pro-Colbert super-PAC. But is Stewart really running the PAC independently of his friend and coworker? Who knows, and besides, the rule is virtually impossible to enforce. To rub in the ridiculousness, Stewart said he'd rename his new super-PAC "The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super-PAC." Hyuk, hyuk.

Cpl. Alexander McDonald, the chaplain's assistant for 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (Forward) is tasked with providing security for the 3rd CEB chaplain, as well as, providing religious services and administrative needs of the chaplain. This photo was taken by Cpl. Meredith Brown on January 19, 2012.

2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has faced some tough questions about his taxes since telling reporters on Tuesday that he pays "close to 15 percent" of his income to the IRS—a lower rate than many Americans who don't have the GOP front-runner's fortune, which is estimated to be as high as a quarter-billion dollars. If the booing at Thursday night's debate is any indication, Romney remains vulnerable on the tax issue, even among Republican primary voters.

"[Why shouldn't] the people of South Carolina, before the election see last year's return?" CNN's John King asked the ex-governor.

"Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama, and every time we release things, drip by drip, the Democrats come out with another array of attacks," Romney responded. "If I'm the nominee, I'll put these out at one time, so we'll have one discussion of all of this."

When King pointed out that Mitt's father George Romney released twelve years of tax returns when running for president and asked Mitt if he would follow his father's example, the candidate chuckled awkwardly before saying, "Maybe, I don't know how many returns I'll release."

At that point, Romney had to pause for parts of the South Carolina audience to stop heckling and booing him. Then he recovered with what's likely to be a common refrain in the general election if the ex-governor wins the nomination. "I'm not going to apologize for being successful," Romney said, and the audience cheered.

The Obama administration offered a tax proposal last year that would have made the wealthy pay a larger share of their income. The proposal was dubbed "The Buffet Rule," after wealthy investor Warren Buffett, who said that some of his employees pay lower tax rates than he does. At the time, Democrats salivated at the possiblity that Romney might also be paying a lower effective tax rate than people who don't own more than one house, even as he's proposing even larger tax cuts for the well-off. With most Americans still struggling financially, voters might not be as receptive to a super-wealthy politician asking them to bear a larger share of the tax burden so that he and other wealthy Americans can pay less.

There's also the possibility that there's some sort of major scandal lurking in Romney's financial history that could sink his chances in the general election. 

Newt Gingrich, who released his tax returns Thursday evening, wasn't shy about raising the possibility.

"If there's anything in there thats going to help us lose the election, we should know before he wins the nomination," Gingrich said. "If there's nothing in there, why not release it?"

Mitt, doin' work.

At Thursday night's CNN debate, Mitt Romney attacked the Obama administration's loan guarantees for the now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra as a prime instance of the government picking winners and losers in business, and losing big. But Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney founded, frequently received similar help from state governments, including subsidies and tax breaks. The subsidy-tracking folks over at Good Jobs First compiled a vast database on just how much states have bailed out companies that were bought and—in a number of cases—gutted by Bain Capital. Some of the highlights:

Sealy. A year after the 1997 buyout of this leading mattress company by Bain and other private equity firms, Sealy received $600,000 from state and local authorities in North Carolina to move its corporate offices, a research center and a manufacturing plant from Ohio (Greensboro News & Record, March 31, 1998). In 2004 Bain and its partners sold Sealy to another private equity group.

GS Industries. In 1996 American Iron Reduction LLC, a joint venture of GS Industries (which had been taken private by Bain in 1993) and Birmingham Steel, sought some $20 million in tax breaks in connection with its plan to build a plant in Louisiana’s St. James Parish (Baton Rouge Advocate, April 6, 1996). As the United Steelworkers union noted recently, GS Industries later applied for a federal loan guarantee, but before the deal could be implemented the company went bankrupt.

AMC Entertainment. After being promised more than $40 million in subsidies, this movie chain (bought in 2004 by Bain and other private equity firms) agreed to move its headquarters from downtown Kansas City, Missouri to a nearby suburb across the state line in Kansas. The deal was criticized as an egregious case of taxpayer-financed sprawl. [Even though Romney left Bain in 1999, he's continued reaping millions in lightly taxed investment income since then.]

As for the office supply store Staples, a supposed success Romney frequently touts? In 1996, the company chose to move its distribution center to Maryland in exchange for a healthy $4.2 million subsidy deal.

Romney says that President Obama's record of aiding private enterprise proves the president doesn't have a clue about how capitalism works—that, in the Obama's view, capitalism necessarily relies on the generosity of government largesse. But if we're to judge Romney's understanding of capitalism based on how he ran the show at Bain, it's tough to see how business success doesn't often rely on government help.

At Thursday night's Republican primary debate on CNN, Mitt Romney told the audience he "didn't inherit money from my parents." Romney's dad, George Romney, was the CEO of the American Motors Company and governor of Michigan during the 1960s, so it's hard to believe he didn't have money to bequeath his son Mitt. As it happens, the younger Romney explained what happened to his inheritance in more detail in an interview with Reuters in December [emphasis added]:

"What I got from my parents when they passed away I gave away to charity and to my kids. And so what I’ve earned has been earned through my education, my values, living in the greatest country in the world, through some luck and through hard work," he said.

Passing your inheritance on to your children is not the same as not inheriting money at all. And it actually makes me a bit curious: a common estate-tax reduction strategy known as a dynasty trust relies on skipping generations. Did Romney pass on his inheritance to his kids for tax reasons? It's hard to know without seeing his tax returns—and that's another reason why he should release them.

Rick Santorum

At Thursday's GOP presidential debate in Charleston, Rick Santorum pulled out what he thought was the perfect anecdote for bureaucratic overreach. As he explained it, he'd talked to a state health official in Iowa and been informed that the state had actually been fined by the federal government because it didn't cover enough people under Medicaid. It was an example of well-intentioned big government gone bad and passing the burden onto a cash-strapped state. But was it true?

As it happens, ABC's Huma Khan looked into this when Santorum first brought it up earlier in January:

First, there is no "Department of Public Welfare" in Iowa, as Santorum stated. It’s the Department of Human Services that disburses Medicaid grants.

Second, it is unclear to what "fine" Santorum was referring. Iowa, like other states, receives federal reimbursement for the money it disburses in Medicaid fees. There is no quota system or target that the state has to meet in order to be eligible for federal money. The amount of money that each state receives is dependent on its economy.

"The formula is based on how well that state is doing economically and since Iowa is improving its economic status, we are soon to lose a couple percentage points," said Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services. "This is not a punishment. This is a recognition that Iowa’s economy is improving relative to other states."

So: Not exactly the nightmare scenario Santorum warned us of. But it could be worse; when Michele Bachmann wanted an anonymous expert to back up her allegation that under Obamacare, IRS agents would be forced to approve every medical procedure, she claimed to have heard it first-hand from a seven-foot-tall doctor.

Newt prays, hard.

With revelations of Newt Gingrich's zeal for the sanctity of open marriage now dominating the news cycle, the former House Speaker may soon need to consult a higher power to help him field the tough family values questions that South Carolina's bedrock conservative Republican voters are likely to ask him.

Luckily, Gingrich has someone much closer to home to help out: long-time friend Michael Youssef, an Atlanta-based televangelist who was just named the national co-chair of Gingrich's Faith Leaders Coalition. Youssef is an ardent pro-lifer, a virulent Islamophobe, and a gay-hater who has compared Mormonism to Islam (unfavorably).

It's unclear if Gingrich's people did all their homework on Youssef, who has a history of attacking not only Muslims and gay people, but also Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Via the People for the American Way, here's an excerpt from a column Youssef wrote for the American Family Association last January:

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich

The Ghost of Wife No. 2 hit the stage of the Republican presidential campaign on Thursday, when hours before the final debate in South Carolina, ABC News reported that Marianne Gingrich had said that Gingrich, while having an affair with Wife No. 3-to-be, asked her for an "open marriage," in which Marianne would share Gingrich with his then-mistress.

Gingrich's six-year-long extramarital tryst with Callista Bisek, a congressional aide at the time, is not news. But his alleged effort to define his own marriage as a union between a man and a woman and a woman had not been previously reported.

It's not much of a surprise that Marianne would lob this bombshell at this point. She and Newt went through an acrimonious divorce in 1999. Back then, as a recovering Newt-watcher, I covered some of those proceedings and on occasion spoke to Marianne. What was striking at the time was that Gingrich seemed to be the one acting vindictively in the proceedings. Marianne appeared to just want a clean exit (with the right amount of compensation). Here's part of a dispatch I wrote for Salon:

“We don’t know. We just don’t know. If you find out, let me know. It’s a mystery.” So said Marianne Gingrich, the soon-to-be ex-wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, when asked why she thought Newt was being a hard-ass in the divorce proceedings he initiated against her.

We were talking Tuesday morning in a courtroom in the Superior Court of Washington, minutes before the latest hearing in the case, and I remarked that it was hard to make sense of Newt’s scorched-earth approach to the divorce, which has already revealed his six-year-long extramarital affair with congressional aide Calista Bisek and tainted whatever was left of his image as a family-values Republican.

If he’s pocketing $50,000 per speech, as reported, why wouldn’t he just strike a deal and avoid all the negative publicity? His strategy of all-out fighting — and dragging his new love into the mess — seems irrational to an outsider, I commented.

“It looks that way to an insider,” Marianne said with a sad smile.

Her smile was broader an hour and a half later, after Judge Brook Hedge had ruled that Bisek had to turn over most of the records that Marianne Gingrich’s attorneys had sought from her — including telephone bills,
credit card bills, bank statements, correspondence between her and the ex-speaker, appointment books, gifts from Newt and other materials dating back five years. (Neither Newt nor Bisek attended the hearing.)

Bisek’s attorney, Pamela Bresnahan, had argued that the request was an invasion of Bisek’s privacy and that most of the material was not relevant to the divorce proceedings. But Judge Hedge shot her down, noting that Bisek is “not just a bystander” in Gingrich vs. Gingrich. Consequently, Marianne Gingrich’s lawyers — John Mayoue, an Atlanta attorney, and Victoria Toensing, the Republican talking head and lawyer who once counted Newt as an ally — will have the opportunity to comb Bisek’s papers and seek out information about the secret affair Gingrich maintained while he was rising to power.

They also will get the chance to question Bisek directly. After some legal squabbling, Bisek agreed to submit to a deposition in December....

In the meantime, Newt has his own problems brewing with his wife’s attorneys. In August, Mayoue sent the former speaker a list of questions, a standard procedure in the discovery process of a divorce case. Lawyers customarily try to obtain answers to interrogatories before they hold depositions.

Mayoue’s questions covered all the obvious territory. Newt Gingrich was asked to identify all persons who had any knowledge regarding his break from Marianne. He was probed about his finances, since Marianne suspects he has hidden assets from her. He was asked to list all his bank accounts and to note all transfers of money or property in excess of $1,000 that he has made since Jan. 1, 1997. He was asked if he had received any treatment or counseling from a pastor or mental health professional in the past five years.

He was asked to identify “any and all persons, other than your wife, with whom you’ve had sexual relations during this marriage” and to provide the “dates, times and places in which said sexual relations occurred.” He also was asked to identify anyone who knew of these affairs. Question No. 25 inquired, “Do you believe that you have conducted your private life in this marriage in accordance with the concept of ‘family values’ you have espoused politically and professionally?”

At the time, Newt Gingrich's legal strategy did not make any sense. It looked as if a stream of sewage was about to pour forth. I wrote:

Why isn’t Newt trying to head this ugly divorce trial off at the pass? Why are there no settlement talks occurring?

“My hunch is that he doesn’t care about his public image any longer,” says one of Newt Gingrich’s associates. “He’s enjoying being in the private sector, and that means not having to worry about bad press."

This may be a sign that Newt has given up on politics. (Although talk of his political rehabilitation has always seemed far-fetched, he did refuse to rule out future runs when he announced his resignation a year ago.)

Newt-haters theoretically could have feared a Nixon-like return from the near-dead — but given how Newt is handling this case, they need not fret any longer.

Actually, a few weeks later, Newt did settle the divorce. That was before he or Callista had to turn over records and be deposed. Marianne received a decent deal (I was told), and the details of Newt's private life would remain private. Yet as he now attempts a Nixon-like comeback, Marianne is speaking out and placing in public view some of what she did not squeeze out of Newt during their time in court, demonstrating that it's never too late for a bitter divorce to get worse.

2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich

As I'm walking to Newt Gingrich's meet-and-greet at a hunting ranch in Walterboro, South Carolina, a middle-aged woman explains to me why she's going to vote for the former speaker of the House on Saturday. It's quite simple, really: "Newt's salt of the earth." Salt of the earth is actually something Newt Gingrich has never been accused of being. He likes to name-drop existential writers and Enlightenment philosophers and conservative economists from the 1980s; he doesn't hunt; he doesn't farm; he doesn't get his hands dirty, except to dig up dinosaur bones in Montana.

So how does Gingrich appeal to an interest group he shouldn't, at least culturally, have anything in common with? By picking fights with their shared enemy. Before launching into his brief stump speech, Gingrich uses the occasion of speaking to sportsmen (many of them dressed in their finest camo threads) to blast "intellectual left-wing environmentalists" for believing that "humans are not part of the world." As attendees munched on barbecue and coleslaw and sipped sweet tea, Gingrich told them who they should resent, and why:

I want to make one point that I think liberals don't ever get. And I always sort of reference it when we're talking about rivers and the low-country. People who hunt and fish are among our most passionate conservationists because they're actually out in the woods and on the trails and in the streams and in the swamps. And they understand that if we don't keep areas that are healthy, there is no hunting and fishing. And so the big difference is this: the intellectual, left-wing environmentalists have a theoretical model in which humans are not part of the world.

This is very different from what Theodore Roosevelt and others began at the turn of the last century, when they wanted a conservation that was multiple-use and they wanted natural areas, but they understood they wanted natural areas so that people could join them. We've had a tremendous decline for example in forestry. And the result is our trees are sicker today, we lose more trees to fire today, Because we have more beetle infestation, because environmentalists don't understand nature. They have this idealized model that doesn't reflect the world. It's a little bit like the Disney cartoon model of Africa where the elephants and the zebras and the lions all hang out together. Now any of you who know about the real world know that if the lions and zebras hang out together after a while, there are fewer zebras and happier lions.

This gets a lot of laughs, but one thing is missing from Gingrich's rant: science. In the real world, of course, the biggest threat facing American ecosystems and endangered species isn't Agenda 21 or a lack of qualified forestry experts; it's climate change. But for Gingrich, who once joined Nancy Pelosi to urge Americans to take action on climate change, that would be an impossible argument to make. Gingrich's characterization of environmentalists favoring a world without people may also have a darker meaning. Many conservatives fear that under a UN program called Agenda 21, vast swaths of land, such as eastern Montana, will be cleared of humans entirely. Gingrich has himself mentioned Agenda 21 on the campaign trail.

More so than Romney, Santorum, or Paul, Gingrich sells himself to voters by putting the "bully" in bully pulpit. His stump speech consists largely of giving his audience the illusion that the problem with the current president is that he has substandard intelligence (Gingrich's most reliable laugh line is the concession that he'd let President Obama use a teleprompter in their never-gonna-happen Lincoln-Douglas debates). In Easley on Wednesday, he explained that the administration's decision to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was "stupid" (a line he repeats in Walterboro). "It's one thing to say that a White House doesn't understand chess," he says. "It's another to say they can't understand checkers. But if they can't play tic-tac-toe…" Well, you get the picture.

That anger, and his ability to channel the same in others, explains why Gingrich's performance at Monday's debate—when he dismissed Fox News' Juan Williams' suggestion that he was playing to racial stereotypes by denigrating food stamps—has resonated so deeply. "I am so tired, personally, of racial prejudice," says Tommie Derry of Walterboro, a Gingrich supporter. "The way blacks are handling it, if you weren't racially prejudiced, it'd make you racially prejudiced" Gingrich's retort to Williams went beyond a simple debating coup; it was cathartic. "When I hear the Juans of the world, I get upset." Her son, Mark, doesn't go quite so far, but when I ask him how long he's been on Team Newt, he doesn't even have to think about it: "Since Monday." 

When people talk about South Carolina Republican politics, they talk, with a good deal of proof, about "whisper campaigns." It's sort of a caricature at this point, and as some voters I've spoken with have put it, probably as much a product of the primary's timing as it is the state's character; by the time the third nominating contest has rolled around, there's a sense of urgency that leads to, well, desperate measures.

Right on cue, this is the flier that was left on my windshield at last night's Personhood USA pro-life forum in the Evangelical hub of Greenville. Its target? Rick Santorum's wife, Karen:

Photo: Tim MurphyPhoto: Tim Murphy

Here's the relevant part:

Did you know Rick Santorum's wife, Karen, had a six-year affair with an abortionist named Tom Allen?

This story is only now hitting the news. But you can see for yourself at:

This abortion doctor was 30 years her senior! In fact, he delivered her as a baby!

The only reason they broke up was that Karen wanted kids—while Tom was busy killing them.

In fact, he said, "Karen had no problem with what I did for a living," and said that Rick Santorum was "pro-choice and a humanist."

The rest of the letter focuses on the former Pennsylvania senator, concluding "He just wants to be President so badly, he'll say anything to be elected."

The susbstance of the Karen Santorum smear is, for the most part, true. It wasn't an affair, though—neither Karen nor Tom Allen were married at the time—so the hint of infidelity is false. More to the point, it's difficult to see any scenario in which this should be relevant. Does anyone seriously doubt the Santorums' anti-abortion credentials?