Newt Gingrich came under persistent fire in a debate yesterday as the latest front-runner in the Republican presidential race, while top rival Mitt Romney opened himself up for attacks of being out of touch with ordinary Americans by offering a $10,000 wager onstage.
Gingrich, whose temperament for the presidency has been questioned by his opponents, mostly maintained a cool demeanor in fielding criticisms focused on his record. Romney found himself immediately mocked by Democrats after he challenged Texas Governor Rick Perry to the bet over health-care policy.
“I’m not in the betting business,” Perry replied.
The Democratic National Committee jumped on the $10,000 offer, suggesting it showed Romney is out of touch with middle-class Americans. That sum is more than four months’ pay for most and more than a year’s worth of mortgage payments, the DNC said in an e-mail to reporters.
Romney, the founder of the Boston-based venture capital firm Bain Capital LLC, is worth as much as $250 million, according to a personal financial disclosure he filed in August.
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, had been largely ignored by his Republican rivals in many of this year’s previous debates and often assumed the role of scold, berating the questioners at the forums. That wasn’t the case last night following his surge during the past month in polls of the Republican race.
He and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, each faced attacks from rivals, as both also assailed each other.
One exchange concerned Gingrich calling the Palestinians an “invented people” in a recent interview with the Jewish Channel cable television network.
Romney called the statement a “mistake” that would make relations with the Palestinians more difficult for Israel.
“I’m not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally,” he said, seeking to contrast his personality with Gingrich’s.
“Sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth,” Gingrich responded as he stood by his statement. “I will tell the truth even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes.”
Perry came to Gingrich’s defense by saying the media was making too much out of the statement and that the focus in discussing the Israeli-Palestinian issue should be on President Barack Obama.
“This president is the problem,” he said. “Not something that Newt Gingrich said.”
Romney earlier had contrasted his background with that of Gingrich’s, who he has derided as a career politician and Washington insider.
“The real difference I believe is our backgrounds,” he said. “I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works. I believe that for Americans to say goodbye to President Obama and elect a Republican, they need to have confidence that the person they’re electing knows how to make this economy work again.”
Gingrich sought to turn the tables on Romney, saying he would have been a Washington insider himself if he had won an election in Massachusetts almost 20 years ago against then-Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat.
“Let’s be candid, the only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich said. “You’d have been a 17-year career politician by now if you’d won.”
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota targeted Gingrich and Romney on the issue of a government requirement that people purchase health insurance.
She took Gingrich to task for his support in 1993 of the so-called individual mandate for purchasing health insurance when then-President Bill Clinton’s administration unsuccessfully tried to redesign the nation’s health-care system. And she attacked Romney for helping push into law, as governor of Massachusetts, a state law with an insurance mandate.
Romney reiterated that it should be up to each state to decide whether to adopt the mandate, and that it was wrong for Obama to make it the centerpiece of the 2010 federal law overhauling the U.S. health-care system.
Perry argued that Romney had asserted in a book he wrote that other states should embrace the mandate provision. Romney disputed Perry’s claim, and it was then that he offered the bet.
Bachmann repeatedly called the front-runners “Newt-Romney,” suggesting that they aren’t true conservatives and that she is.
“He and I are not clones,” Romney replied.
Bachmann later offered herself as “the proven, consistent conservative” in the Republican contest.
Gingrich, who has been married three times and acknowledged being unfaithful to a previous spouse, faced implied criticism of his personal life.
“If you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner,” Perry said when asked whether infidelity should disqualify someone for the presidency.
Not a Disqualifier
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said it shouldn’t be a disqualifier, while adding that a person’s character should be weighed.
“Character issues do count,” he said. “Trust is everything.”
Gingrich said his personal life should be viewed in its entirety, as he addressed the question in a state where social conservatives hold great sway in the Republican Party.
“I’ve made mistakes at times,” he said. “I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation. But I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, whose campaign is running an ad in Iowa labeling Gingrich a “serial hypocrite,” spotlighted the constancy theme. Reiterating his long-held opposition to an assertive government role in the economy, he said there would “be a little bit of trouble with anybody competing with me on consistency.”
Paul charged that Gingrich has been “on different positions on so many issues,” as he criticized him for supporting the bank bailout in 2008 and for working as a consultant to the government-backed home mortgage company Freddie Mac.
Gingrich received about $1.6 million from Freddie Mac through two contracts. Asked about a $300,000 fee during a November debate, Gingrich said he was acting as a “historian” who warned the company that its business model was “insane.”
Former Freddie Mac officials familiar with the consulting work Gingrich was hired to perform in 2006 said he was brought aboard to build bridges on Capitol Hill. Gingrich has said he did no lobbying for the company, which he now criticizes as a candidate.
Romney and Gingrich agree on an issue bogged down in the U.S. Congress, a proposed extension of the payroll tax cut. Both favor it. Paul said last night he also wants to extend it; Perry, Bachmann and Santorum oppose that move.
Not Enough Money
“This year alone, this will also cost the Social Security Trust Fund another $112 billion, and we don’t have enough money this year in the Social Security Trust Fund to put out those checks,” Bachmann said.
The debate was moderated by George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer of ABC News and broadcast on that network live from Drake University in Des Moines. It was also sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper, Yahoo.com, the Republican Party of Iowa and WOI-TV, an Iowa ABC affiliate.
It’s the 12th formal debate this year for the Republican candidates, who will meet again on Dec. 15 for a session in Sioux City, Iowa. The state conducts caucuses where voting in the nomination race starts.
The debate was the first since businessman Herman Cain’s departure from the race on Dec. 3 amid allegations of sexual indiscretions. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who isn’t actively campaigning in Iowa while focusing on New Hampshire -- site of the race’s first primary -- didn’t meet polling criteria for being part the debate.
Gingrich had the support of 25 percent of likely caucus participants in the latest Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register. Paul was next with 18 percent, followed by Romney at 16 percent. Sixty percent of poll participants said they could change their minds, while 11 percent said they are undecided.