DES MOINES, Iowa — Republicans threw everything they could at Newt Gingrich in a fiery debate Saturday night, increasingly desperate to stop his momentum toward the 2012 presidential nomination in the final weeks before voting starts in less than 4 weeks.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives responded with a combination of laughs and a steely determination not to let the charges go unanswered, particularly from chief rival Mitt Romney.
The spirited, two-hour debate was the first since Gingrich shot to the lead in polls in Iowa, prompting a round of challenges to his record as a Washington insider, his well-paid consulting work for the semi-federal mortgage agency Freddie Mac, his marital infidelities, and his recent statement that the Palestinians are an "invented" people.
"Speaker Gingrich has been in government for a long time... I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works," Romney said in an early criticism of the longtime politician.
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"Let's be candid," Gingrich fired back. "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," he said, when Romney lost a Senate bid. "You'd have been a 17-year career politician by now if you'd won."
Romney tried to turn that notion around.
"If I would have been able to get into the NFL (National Football League) like I wanted to when I was a kid, I'd have been a football star...losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could have done for the job I'm seeking," he said. "It put me back in the private sector." That got applause.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota hit Gingrich as a Washington elitist, noting acidly that he's made more than $100 million since leaving Congress, some of it in consulting fees from the Freddie Mac housing agency that conservatives want to dismantle.
"When you're talking about taking over $100 million, and when your office is on the Rodeo Drive of Washington D.C., which is K Street, and you're taking money to influence the outcome of legislation in Washington, that's the epitome of the establishment, that's the epitome of a consummate insider," said Bachmann.
Gingrich chafed at the criticism, insisting that he was just making a living.
"I was in the private sector," he said. "And when you're in the private sector, and you have a company and you offer advice...you're allowed to charge money for it....It's called free enterprise."
Some also challenged Gingrich's recent statement that the Palestinians are an "invented" people.
"That's just stirring up trouble," said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
"That was a mistake," said Romney, adding that he would never make such an inflammatory statement. "I will exercise sobriety," he said, implicitly suggesting that Gingrich acts rashly. "I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally."
"These people are terrorists," responded Gingrich, in reference to Palestinians. "Sometimes it's helpful to have a president of the United States who tells the truth." He likened his statement to Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire."
The candidates also talked about the importance of marriage vows, a clear slap at Gingrich, who is in his third marriage. Every other candidate is married to their first spouse.
"If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said his marriage vow was made not only to his wife, but to God.
"Character issues do count," said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. "I would not say it's a disqualifier ...but certainly it's a factor...trust is everything."
Gingrich conceded that "it is a real issue" and that candidates and voters have a right to ask. "In my case," he said, "I've made mistakes at times. I've had to go to God for forgiveness."
Bachmann slammed both Gingrich and Romney for supporting government mandates that people buy health insurance, supporting "cap and trade" environmental legislation, the $700 billion TARP bank bailout, and an extension of the payroll tax cut. She referred to them as "Newt Romney."
Gingrich reacted sternly. "Michele, a lot of what you say just isn't true, period."
Romney was more jocular, protesting her tying the two together.
"I know Newt Gingrich and Newt Gingrich is a friend of mine, but we are not clones," he said to laughter.
It was the 12th debate of the campaign, held at Drake University and broadcast by ABC. The candidates will debate again Thursday in Iowa, the last debate before Iowa Republicans kick off the voting with precinct caucuses on Jan. 3.
While the first 11 GOP debates in this campaign drew decent ratings, the holiday
Saturday night airtime faced a challenge drawing viewers. The manager of the local
ABC affiliate said the network chose the date because it was the first Saturday all fall
that was free from either a televised NASCAR or college sporting event; ABC usually
televises college football in the time slot.
(Thomma reported from Iowa, Lightman from Washington.)