Republicans Spar Over Credentials at Debate

Newt Gingrich sought to defend his front-runner status in the Republican presidential race as his rivals, led by Michele Bachmann, questioned his electability and record in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.

Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s chief rival who has been trying to stop his momentum, eased off charges he leveled against the former U.S. House speaker and argued that his business background gives him the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.

Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who needs a strong showing in the Jan. 3 caucuses that start the nomination process to remain viable, asserted herself as Gingrich’s most aggressive attacker in the debate last night in Sioux City, Iowa.

Saying Gingrich had sold his influence, she criticized him for the $1.6 million in consulting fees he received after leaving Congress from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage company.

“We can’t have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” she said, referring to a second government-backed mortgage company. “They need to be shut down, not built up.”

Gingrich, who said he now advocates breaking up the two companies, insisted his work involved no lobbying while defending his fees as legitimate compensation for a private business person.

‘Factually Not True’

“What she just said is factually not true,” he said of Bachmann’s attacks. “I never lobbied under any circumstance.”

Bachmann, 55, also said Gingrich, 68, hasn’t taken strong enough anti-abortion stances to be the Republican nominee. She focused her criticism on his stated willingness while a congressional leader to campaign for Republicans who supported what she called the “barbaric” procedure of partial-birth abortion.

“The Republican Party can’t get the issue of life wrong,” she said. “This is a seminal issue.”

Gingrich said his anti-abortion voting record was close to 100 percent during his 20 years as a House member. He also said that, while he was opposed to partial-birth abortion, he hadn’t been in the business of trying to decide which members of his party to “purge.”

As he again accused Bachmann of getting her facts wrong, he drew a rebuke from her.

Serious Candidate

“It’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debate that I don’t have my facts right,” she said. “I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States, and my facts are accurate.”

Gingrich at the start of the two-hour debate was called upon to defend his conservative credentials, which have been questioned by his opponents as he has risen in polls during the last month.

He defended himself by saying “it’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan” and “had a 30-year record of conservatism is somehow not a conservative.”

Romney, 64, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, argued that his decades of experience in the private sector would help him debate Obama next year and sought to use to his advantage an attack by Gingrich in recent days.

Lost Jobs

Gingrich had said Romney, co-founder of the Boston-based private-equity fund Bain Capital LLC, made part of his fortune through moves that destroyed jobs.

“The president is going to level the same attack,” Romney said. “He’s going to go after me and say, you know, in businesses that you’ve invested in, they didn’t all succeed. Some failed, some laid people off. And he’ll be absolutely right. But if you look at all the businesses we invested in, over 100 different businesses, they added tens of thousands of jobs.”

Earlier today, Romney’s campaign announced he had won the endorsement of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the top official in the state that holds the third contest in the 2012 Republican presidential nominating race.

The endorsement from Haley, a favorite of the small- government Tea Party movement, may help Romney as he confronts questions about whether he is too moderate for his party.

‘It’s Huge’

“I think it’s huge,” Romney said when asked about the endorsement following an event today at a steel manufacturing company in Sioux City. “It’s great.”

Romney is scheduled to appear with Haley later today in Greenville, South Carolina. The South Carolina primary will be on Jan. 21, after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which is scheduled for Jan. 10.

U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas said he doesn’t think Republicans need to worry too much about electability.

“Anybody up here could probably beat Obama,” Paul said during the debate. “I think he’s beating himself.”

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania took a subtle jab at Gingrich when discussing electability.

“We need someone who is strong in their political and personal life,” said Santorum, 53.

Romney and his wife, Ann, have also started to talk more about their 42-year marriage, an indirect contrast to Gingrich’s three marriages and admission of an extramarital affair.

Sometimes Wrong

Asked about changes on issues he has made during his political career -- including moving from being a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent -- Romney denied he switched views for political reasons.

“Sometimes I was wrong,” he said. “Where I was wrong, I’ve tried to correct myself.”

Paul, 76, said he would be reflecting the will of most voters when he was asked about his concerns that U.S. policy toward Iran is too belligerent.

“I’d be running with the American people because it would be a much better policy,” he said. “It’s another Iraq coming. It’s war propaganda going on.”

That drew fire, again from Bachmann.

“I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul,” she said to a mixture of cheers and boos. “We know without a shadow of a doubt that Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe our ally, Israel, off the face of the map and they’ve stated they will use it against the United States of America.”

Medicare Plan

Gingrich and Romney praised Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon for releasing yesterday a bipartisan plan to overhaul Medicare, the government health program for the elderly. The plan would give people turning 65 years old starting in 2022 the ability to choose between the existing system, where the government pays hospital and doctors’ bills for seniors, and an alternative system of regulated private insurance plans.

Gingrich gave Romney credit for suggesting an idea adopted in the plan, and called the proposal “a big step forward.” Romney termed it “an enormous achievement.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has struggled in the previous debates, compared himself with Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who faced questions about whether he could play well enough in the National Football League and has amassed a winning record.

Tebow of Caucuses

“I’m kind of getting where I like these debates,” said Perry, 61. “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.”

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who isn’t actively campaigning in Iowa while focusing on New Hampshire, said the nation has both an economic and trust deficit.

“We are getting screwed as Americans,” said Huntsman, 51.

Bret Baier of Fox News moderated the debate, broadcast live from a convention center in Sioux City. Located in Iowa’s northwest corner, the area has the state’s greatest concentration of registered Republicans.

It was the 13th formal Republican debate this year and is the final session before Iowa’s caucuses. It also could be the last for one or more of the candidates, since poor performances in the caucuses have immediately winnowed the field in the past.

Helping shape the race’s storyline this weekend will be an endorsement from the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper. The paper also is expected to conduct one final Iowa Poll that will offer a snapshot of the race in its closing days.

To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net; Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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