DES MOINES, Iowa — White House hopeful Newt Gingrich took the gloves off Saturday as he defended his frontrunner status in a feisty debate among the narrowing field of Republican presidential contenders.
Faced with a barrage of attacks on his conservative credentials, history of adultery and controversial remarks calling Palestinians an “invented” people, the former House speaker played tough and kept his cool as he stood his ground.
Slammed by his rivals for “stirring up trouble,” Gingrich insisted that “the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story,” adding: “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools.”
“I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth,” Gingrich said. “Just as it was when (Ronald) Reagan went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire.”
Gingrich was also not afraid to launch a biting personal attack after main rival Mitt Romney called him a “career politician” and Washington insider who does not know what it takes to fix the sputtering US economy.
“I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works,” Romney said before ridiculing Gingrich for supporting mining missions on the moon and changing child labor laws so kids can work as janitors at school.
Gingrich shot back at the former Massachusetts governor: “Let’s be candid. The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to (former senator) Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”
Romney suffered a self-inflicted blow later in the debate when he challenged Texas Governor Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet over what Romney wrote about health care.
President Barack Obama’s Democrats were quick to fire a salvo at the multi-millionaire, noting that $10,000 is more than four months’ pay for most Americans and enough to cover more than a year’s worth of mortgage payments on a typical home.
“He’s going to own that $10,000 bet line. Nothing else he has said in this debate matters,” tweeted Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
The debate comes just three weeks before Iowa holds the party’s first nominating event on January 3 to pick who will challenge Obama in November 2012.
The largely rural midwestern state barely figures in the general election, but has become key in the nominating races.
Written off as politically dead months ago, Gingrich surged to the front of the pack in recent weeks as early contenders Perry and Herman Cain saw their support collapse amidst big blunders and sex scandals.
Polls this week show Gingrich with a significant lead over Romney, who had been seen as the party’s best chance of beating Obama in 2012 despite his inability to win over the party’s conservative base.
Gingrich is under fire from members of the party’s religious base over his admitted extramarital affairs, with one third-party ad calling him “the walking, talking definition of untrustworthy.”
Romney and Perry both ran ads this week emphasizing their family values credentials, and the debate moderators asked the candidates whether voters should consider marital fidelity in picking a president.
Perry, who is wooing the party’s conservative base in hopes of reviving his flagging campaign, fired the sharpest rebuke of Gingrich.
“I’ve always been of the opinion if you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner. So I think that issue of fidelity is important,” Perry said.
Gingrich said he thinks infidelity is “a real issue” and admitted that he’s “made mistakes at times.”
“I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust. All I can tell you is I am delighted at the way people have been willing to look at who I am, to look at what my record has been,” he said.
Gingrich currently has the support of 27 to 33 percent of likely Republican voters both nationally and in Iowa, while Romney’s support ranges from 16 to 23 percent.
Gingrich has also narrowed Romney’s robust edge in New Hampshire, which votes on January 10, and is ahead of him in South Carolina and Florida, which vote on January 21 and January 31, respectively.
While Romney and the other candidates dealt some tough blows, Gingrich held his own, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University, which hosted the debate.
Viewers saw Gingrich and Romney go head-to-head “but at the end of the day it was a draw,” Caufield told AFP.
“Neither one of them clearly and decisively knocked out their opponent.”