During last night’s debate, George Stephanopoulos raised an issue that doesn’t usually come up in these events: “Governor Romney and Governor Perry, you both made it a feature of ads you ran in Iowa this week, which leads to this question from our partners at the Des Moines Register. And we’re going to show it up on the screen. ‘Should voters consider marital fidelity in making their choices for president?’”

I suspect nearly everyone on the audience knows full well that there’s only one admitted adulterer running for president in 2012, and the question would create some awkwardness. What would Newt Gingrich say? And would his rivals use the question as an excuse to go after the disgraced former House Speaker’s scandalous personal life?

Rick Perry was first, and boasted, “Not only did I make a vow to my wife, but I made a vow to God. And that’s pretty heavy liftin’ in my book. When I make a vow to God, then I would suggest to you that’s even stronger than a handshake in Texas.” Asked about the relevance of the issue in the race, the governor added, “I’ve always kind of been of the opinion that– if you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner.”

Rick Santorum added “character issues do count,” but infidelity isn’t necessarily “a disqualifier.”

Eventually, Stephanopoulos asked Gingrich, “What do voters need to know about this issue from your perspective?” Here’s his response:

YouTube video

“Well, first of all, I think it is a real issue. And people have to look at the person whom they’re gonna loan the presidency. And they have the– they have the right to ask every single question. They have to have a feeling that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency. And I think it’s a very, very important issue. And I think people have to render judgment.

“In my case, I’ve said up-front openly I’ve made mistakes at times. I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation. But I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust. And all I can tell you is that, you know, I am delighted at the way people have been willing to look at who I am, to look at what my record has been, and the amount of support we’re getting from the American people and from all across the state of Iowa, the number of people who have supported the candidacy of real change and a record of real change.”

Will the Republican Party’s far-right base find this compelling? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.