Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are on stage at the presidential candidates'… (Jeff Haynes / Reuters )
In the first GOP debate featuring Newt Gingrich as the undisputed front-runner, rival Mitt Romney threw the first jab at the former House speaker, attempting to cast him as a career politician.
Asked where he and Gingrich differed, Romney said, ”We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon. I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that.”
He said he also disagrees with Gingrich’s proposal to eliminate child labor laws so that poor kids can work to clean their schools.
“But the real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds,” Romney said. “I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works. And 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 and create jobs for the American middle class.”
It was the perfect layup for Gingrich to deliver this shot at Romney, who lost his first bid for public office when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1994: “Let’s be candid, the only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich said.
Romney protested – “Now, wait a second” – but Gingrich wasn’t finished.
“I’m a citizen, I’ve served the country in many ways,” Gingrich said. “You’re a citizen, you’ve served the country in many ways. But it’s a bit much – you would’ve been a 17-year career politician by now if you’d won. That’s all I’m saying.”
On moon mining, Gingrich doubled down -- “I’m happy to defend the idea that America should be in space and should be there in an aggressive, entrepreneurial way” – and he defended his position on child labor.
“What I suggested was kids ought to be allowed to work part-time in school,” he said.
His response gave Romney time to come up with an answer to the reference to his 1994 loss.
“If I would have been able to get in the NFl, like I hoped when I was a kid, I would have been a football star all my life,” Romney said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “But I spent my life in the private sector. Losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could have done for preparing me for the job I’m seeking.”