DES MOINES, Iowa — Newt Gingrich’s Republican presidential rivals teed off on the former House of Representatives speaker in Saturday night’s crucial Iowa debate, accusing the new GOP front-runner of being too tied to Washington and too full of odd ideas.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came armed with a list of disagreements.
“The real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds. I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works,” Romney said.
Gingrich fired back.
“Let’s be candid. The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” he said, when Romney lost a Senate bid. Boos erupted.
“Wait a second,” Romney tried to interrupt.
“You’d have been a 17-year career politician by now if you’d won,” Gingrich fired back.
Romney tried to turn that notion around.
“If I would have been able to get into the NFL (National Football League) like I wanted to when I was a kid, I’d have been a football star … losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could have done for the job I’m seeking,” he said. “It put me back in the private sector.” That got applause.
Throughout the two-hour debate at Drake University, televised nationally by ABC, six GOP candidates clashed over health care, child labor, the Social Security payroll tax and a wide variety of other issues.
While the first 11 GOP debates in this campaign drew decent ratings, the holiday Saturday night airtime faced a challenge drawing viewers. The manager of the local ABC affiliate said the network chose the date because it was the first Saturday all fall that was free from either a televised NASCAR or college sporting event; ABC usually televises college football in the time slot.
Gingrich is now the front-runner to win Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses, according to volatile recent polls. A CNN/Time/ORC Iowa poll taken Nov. 29-Dec. 6 found Gingrich with 33 percent, Romney with 20 percent and Paul with 17 percent.
Gingrich’s surge also has made him the favorite target of his rivals. They all took him on Saturday night.
Romney went after Gingrich for advocating a permanent lunar colony, and over his recent statement that child labor laws are “truly stupid.”
“Poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” and should consider janitorial work, among other things, Gingrich said.
Romney said he disagreed with that approach. Gingrich replied, “Every person up here worked at a young age. Kids ought to be allowed to work part time … “
Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., pressed hard against both Gingrich and Romney, calling their common issue positions “Newt-Romney” stands on health care, global warming, bank bailouts and more. She said if Republicans hope to defeat Barack Obama next year, they should nominate a more consistent conservative such as herself, rather than either of the two perceived front-runners.
Romney drew laughter in responding that while he liked Gingrich, “he and I are not clones.”