Republican presidential hopefuls, from left, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry,… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines — In a freewheeling clash that reflected the heightened stakes in the 2012 presidential contest, GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich parried relentless attacks on his ideas, character and record from rival candidates in a televised debate Saturday night.
Mitt Romney portrayed Gingrich as a reckless thinker. Michele Bachmann called him an inconsistent conservative and K Street influence peddler. Ron Paul described him as undiplomatic and a hypocrite. Among his critics' specific targets: Gingrich's recent claim that Palestinians are an "invented people," his disparagement of child labor laws and his past support for cap-and-trade energy plans and a government healthcare mandate.
The repeated attacks may take some of the sparkle off his soaring poll numbers, but Gingrich stood his ground, often giving as good as he got.
The former House speaker, who had vowed to run a positive campaign, offered an acid response to Romney's assertion that the "real difference" between them was their background: Romney's in private business and Gingrich's decades in Washington.
"The only reason you didn't become a career politician is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," Gingrich shot back.
Romney, struggling to regain the top spot in the GOP race, also faced sharp criticism over the healthcare plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts, which became a model for President Obama's program. And in responding, he offered a line that he may rue.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that Romney had written in his most recent book that his healthcare mandate "should be a model for the country," a claim Romney has made in the past, but not in the pages of the book.
In response, Romney, the wealthiest candidate in the race, stuck out his hand and offered to bet Perry $10,000 that he was wrong — a gesture that is unlikely to play well in Iowa, where the first votes of 2012 will be cast in just over three weeks.
Iowans are notoriously inhospitable to displays of wealth, and Romney's move may cause fresh problems for his candidacy among voters who already resent his reluctance to campaign more aggressively in the state. Democrats began openly mocking the statement within minutes, suggesting they believe it could benefit them in the general election were Romney to win the nomination.
The focus on Romney — and his extended tiff with Perry — distracted from the other candidates' attacks on Gingrich and his forceful responses. Gingrich, who never backed down, was unapologetic about his recent comments questioning the status of the Palestinian people. He cast himself as a truth-teller in the mold of President Reagan when he raised hackles by referring to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."
If the United States and its ally Israel don't "have the guts to stand up and say, 'Enough lying about the Middle East,'" Gingrich said, they "are not going to win in the long run."
But Paul, the Texas congressman, said that Gingrich, though "technically" accurate, was needlessly "stirring up trouble" overseas with his remarks. Romney branded Gingrich's statements "a mistake," and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said they were imprudent and counterproductive for Israel.
Perry, however, came to Gingrich's defense. The Texas governor, in what ranked as his best debate performance after months of stumbles, called the controversy a "minor issue" that had been blown "way out of proportion" by the media, prompting Gingrich to nod in agreement and smile at him.
Other Gingrich ideas that were disparaged by his rivals included his proposal to mine the moon for minerals. "I'm not in favor of spending that kind of money," said Romney.
Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, describing herself as "the proven conservative," tried to tie the two leading rivals together, dubbing them "Newt-Romney."
The former House speaker has surged to the front of the field, at least in part on the strength of his past debate performances and the travails of his rivals.
But his newfound prominence in the contest made him the focal point of a national TV debate for the first time.
Gingrich, who has been married three times, was forced to defend his character when all of the six candidates were asked whether voters ought to consider a candidate's marital faithfulness. Gingrich has admitted having had an extramarital affair.
Perry, who is courting Iowa's social conservatives and running ads here touting his faith, gave the strongest response, saying that a politician who is unfaithful to his spouse is not trustworthy: "If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn't you cheat on your business partner, or, why wouldn't you cheat on anyone for that matter?"
With his wife, Callista, watching from the audience, Gingrich agreed that voters ought to consider the matter. He reiterated his prior statements that he had made mistakes and sought forgiveness.
"In my case, I've said up front and openly, I've made mistakes at times. I had to go to God for forgiveness, I've had to seek reconciliation," he said. "But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I am a person they can trust."
The debate at Drake University in Des Moines was the 12th of the nominating season and the first since Gingrich rose from virtual elimination from the race to become the latest front-runner, a status confirmed by his center placement on the debate stage.
One major candidate still in the race, Jon Huntsman Jr., opted not to participate.
There is one more debate, on Thursday, before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.