Gingrich Defends Conservative Bona Fides at Candidates’ Forum

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich defended his fiscal conservative credentials last night in a televised Republican presidential forum, arguing that his achievements in Congress outweigh his past support for mandating health insurance and calls to address climate change -- both considered anathema to Republican base voters.

Gingrich, the latest Republican contender to surge in the polls and challenge former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the lead in the party’s primary, said he has come to view both his health insurance stance and his involvement in a 2008 climate change public service advertisement with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as mistakes.

“Why should limited-government conservatives like me trust that a President Gingrich will not advance these sorts of big- government approaches when you are president?,” asked Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, one of three Republicans who questioned the six candidates participating in the session in the New York studios of Fox News.

Gingrich, 68, responded that “if you look at my entire record -- the only speaker in your lifetime to get to four balanced budgets, the developer of welfare reform, the biggest entitlement reform in your lifetime, somebody who has advocated a balanced budget constitutional amendment,” and a proponent of enforcing the 10th Amendment preserving states’ rights, he has helped to “shrink the government.”

Tea Party Hero

Hosted by the 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, a hero among social conservatives and Tea Party-aligned voters who disdain the federal government, the forum focused on the Constitution and principles of states’ rights.

The event came at the end of a day that saw the contours of the presidential race redefined after Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza Inc. and onetime frontrunner, suspended his campaign after allegations of an extramarital affair and multiple sexual harassment claims.

The candidates took turns separately fielding questions from the three Republican state attorneys general as polls showed Gingrich on the rise one month before the nominating contest kicks off with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Gingrich has the support of 25 percent of likely caucus participants in an Iowa Poll released last night by the Des Moines Register newspaper. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas ran second, with 18 percent, closely followed by Romney at 16 percent.

Health Care

Romney, too, defended his past position on health care when asked how he would answer Barack Obama if the president charged that his health-care overhaul -- reviled by Republicans for mandating that everyone buy medical insurance -- was modeled after the Massachusetts law Romney signed, which has the same requirement.

“I sure look forward to that” exchange, Romney, 64, said. “Do I like the bill overall? Yes. Am I proud of what we did for our state? Yes. But what the president has done is way beyond what we envisioned.”

Romney said while his measure only aimed to cover the 8 percent Massachusetts residents who lacked insurance, “Obamacare is about taking over 100 percent of the people’s insurance in this country.”

The candidates uniformly expressed support for taking power from the federal government and sending it back to the states, including for education and Medicaid. While Texas Governor Rick Perry said he would advocate eliminating federal oversight of labor law, Romney said he wouldn’t go that far.

“I would not propose getting rid of all federal labor law, but I do see we have to rein in the power of the National Labor Relations Board and see how much we could return to the states,” Romney said.

‘Wild and Woolly Ride’

Perry, a virtually instant frontrunner after he entered the presidential race Aug. 13 who has since dropped to single-digit support, used the forum to plead for a reprieve from voters.

“Boy, it’s been a wild and a woolly ride in this primary, and I suspect that’s going to stay the same, so I hope everyone will give me a second look,” Perry, 61, said in his closing statement. He drew backing from just 6 percent in the new Iowa poll.

Paul, 76, argued that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are unconstitutional and should be phased out, and railed against the Patriot Act as “way too much of a sacrifice of liberty” for new federal laws that won’t prevent terrorism.

He also urged free-market conservatives not to cede the debate over the role of government to “liberals” who advocate a strong safety net. “It is up to us to argue the case that the markets can answer, that the free market and property rights can solve just about all these problems much better than more bureaucrats in Washington,” Paul said.

Human Life Amendment

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, 55, said she favors a federal human life amendment over state anti-abortion measures because the topic is so central to the nation’s founding principles. “Life is the fundamental issue,” she said.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum also emphasized social issues, calling Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, “a great warrior for faith and family on the campaign trail four years ago,” and arguing that those subjects shouldn’t be ignored during this campaign.

“I know that everybody has said now that we need to have a truce on those issues,” to focus on the economy, Santorum, 53, said, adding that such a truce would be “a surrender. Ladies and gentlemen, I will not surrender.”

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. skipped the forum.

At the conclusion of the broadcast, Gingrich used his closing statement to cast the 2012 contest as possibly the “most important election since 1860,” when Abraham Lincoln’s election spawned declarations of secession from Southern states that led to the Civil War.

“Eight years of Barack Obama would be a disaster,” Gingrich said. “And if he gets re-elected with this economy, this deficit, these problems, he’s going to think it vindicates” his “radicalism.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva@bloomberg.net

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