WASHINGTON – Republican presidential hopefuls squared off Saturday in yet another televised debate, this time taking aim at new front-runner Newt Gingrich, who entered the Iowa sparring match riding high in the polls and boldly predicting he’s heading for victory.
The pile-on started with especially crackling policy flareups between Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the one-time Massachusetts governor who is suddenly trailing the former speaker of the House of Representatives following Gingrich’s unexpected, 11th-hour sprint in the race for the nomination.
But the tensest moment came about an hour into the ABC/Yahoo/Des Moines Register showdown, when all the candidates were asked whether marital fidelity was an important quality in a president.
Gingrich, notorious for his checkered marital past, was the last to answer the question as his rivals all made mention of their own long and committed marriages.
“This is a real issue; people have to look at the person who they are going to loan the presidency,” Gingrich said as the camera panned to his smiling third wife, Callista Gingrich.
“In my case, I have made mistakes at times, I’ve had to go to God at times. People have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the toughest, saying anyone who cheats on his spouse would cheat on his business partner and can’t be trusted. He also suggested fooling around was un-Christian.
“A vow to God is even stronger than a handshake in Texas,” Perry told the Des Moines crowd, famously socially conservative and devoutly Christian.
Gingrich left his ailing first wife for his second, and then left Wife No. 2 for his current spouse, a congressional aide in the 1990s. Their affair took place as Gingrich called for former president Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Gingrich told the debate he was “delighted” Americans seem to be judging him for who he is now, making reference to the fact that he’s a 68-year-old grandfather.
With just 24 days before primary season officially kicks off with the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich was on the hot seat during the 12th Republican presidential debate. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann directed her fire at both Gingrich and Romney by dubbing them “Newt Romney,” alleging both men were moderate on several issues, including public health care.
And yet Romney failed to land any knockout punches on Gingrich, and in fact may have caused his campaign even more trouble in Iowa while sparring with Perry over his health-care record.
The Mormon millionaire has taken pains to prove to voters he’s an average Joe, but he offered Perry a $10,000 bet during their war of words over Romney’s biography. That’s a significant chunk of the average annual salary in Iowa.
Perry had accused Romney of altering a paperback version of the book to delete a line that suggested he wanted to make his Massachusetts health-care plan a model for the rest of the nation. Romney denied it.
“I’ll tell you what. Ten thousand bucks? Ten-thousand-dollar bet?” Romney said, holding out his hand, in the debate’s most cringe-worthy moment.
Perry replied: “I’m not in the betting business.”
Romney attempted to inflict some damage on Gingrich, but didn’t get very far.
“The real difference is our backgrounds,” Romney said in response to a question about where he and Gingrich are at odds.
“I spent my life in the private sector. I know how the economy works. Americans …. have to have confidence that the person they’re electing knows how to get the economy working.”
Gingrich fired back with a zinger.
“Let’s be candid: the only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” he said. “It’s a bit much; you’d have been a 17-year career politician if you’d won.”
Romney laughed, replying: “Losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could have ever done, because it put me back in the private sector.”
Texas congressman Ron Paul, whose campaign is running a scathing commercial maligning Gingrich as a hypocrite, called the former speaker a flip-flopper. He accused Gingrich of having multiple positions “on so many issues,” most of them not terribly conservative.
Paul received the loudest hoots from the audience when moderator Diane Sawyer announced the candidates at the beginning of the showdown.
The libertarian candidate, with a big youth following thanks in part for his insistence that marijuana should be legal, is polling strongly in Iowa. Some pundits predict he could stage an upset in Iowa next month.
Gingrich entered the debate under a cloud of controversy about his remarks that the Palestinians are an “invented people.” The comments seemed to signal a Gingrich presidency might abandon U.S. policy on a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
Gingrich didn’t back off his comments during the debate, saying there’s no difference between Hamas and Fatah, the two leading Palestinian factions that are often at odds.
“These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools,” Gingrich said. “It’s fundamentally time for someone to have the guts to stand up and say, enough lying about the Middle East.”
Romney chastised Gingrich’s remarks about Palestinians, calling them a “mistake.”
“I think we are very wise to stand with our friends, Israel, and not get out ahead of them,” Romney said, adding he would handle the Middle East situation and foreign policy in general with “sobriety.”
“I’m not a bomb-thrower, figuratively or literally,” said Romney, making reference to Gingrich’s past reputation while serving as speaker as the Republican party’s bomb-thrower.