DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Surging frontrunner Newt Gingrich fought off heavy attacks in a presidential debate in Iowa on Saturday from Republican rivals who portrayed him as a Washington insider and questioned his judgment.
Gingrich, described by some critics as rash and petulant, kept his cool as his Republican rivals criticized him for making up to $1.6 million from housing giant Freddie Mac, for saying Palestinians were an “invented” people and for his troubled marital past.
Mitt Romney, the former frontrunner and once the presumed nominee, contrasted his business experience with Gingrich’s background in Washington.
“We don’t need folks who are lifetime Washington people,” Romney said, adding his time as head of a private equity firm helped him understand how to turn around the economy and made him more electable than a Washington politician like Gingrich.
But Romney may have hurt himself by challenging Texas Governor Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet over healthcare in a quip that drew criticism of Romney as out of touch with normal Americans in economic hard times.
It was the first debate since Gingrich roared past Romney to take a big lead in polls in the Republican battle to pick a 2012 challenger to President Barack Obama, and the other candidates were quick to attack.
U.S. Representatives Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul criticized Gingrich as a hypocrite who profited from his contacts and wound up taking taxpayer money when Freddie Mac was bailed out by the federal government.
“When you’re taking money to influence the outcome of legislation, that’s the epitome of establishment,” Bachmann said.
Gingrich said he did not lobby for the housing giant but offered “strategic advice,” and he shot back at Romney’s criticism of him as a career politician.
“The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich told Romney, who lost a Senate bid in Massachusetts that year but later became governor. “It’s a bit much, you’d have been a 17-year career politician now if you’d won.”
The debate came less than a month before Iowa kicks off the state-by-state Republican nominating contest, and Gingrich has faced questions from religious conservatives in the state about his three marriages and his admitted marital infidelities.
Perry, who has aired two television ads aimed at winning over evangelical voters, said that was a legitimate question for voters. “I think that issue of fidelity is important,” he said. “If you’re cheating on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner.”
Gingrich agreed it was a legitimate issue and said he had gone to God for forgiveness. “People have to measure who I am and whether I’m a person they can trust,” he said.
Gingrich was also pressed about his comment on Friday in an interview with the Jewish Channel in which he said Palestinians were an “invented” people.
“That’s just stirring up trouble,” Paul said. “This is how we get into so many messes. I think it just fails us on a little bit of diplomacy.”
When Gingrich said he was speaking the truth, Romney said he was not a “bomb thrower.”
“We’re going to tell the truth. But we’re not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot,” he said.
Gingrich said he was simply doing what Ronald Reagan used to do, which was to have the courage to tell the truth no matter how unpleasant. “Reagan believed in the power of truth. I’m a Reaganite, I’m proud to be a Reaganite, I will tell the truth,” he said.
Romney also took heat from his rivals for his healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts, which became a precursor for Obama’s healthcare makeover.
When pressed by Perry, Romney offered to bet him $10,000 that he did not support an individual healthcare mandate during the debate on the state plan. Perry said he was not a betting man and refused to take it.
With only six candidates participating, each had more time to talk. Businessman Herman Cain withdrew from the race a week ago after charges he had a 13-year extramarital affair, and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman did not participate.
The Republicans will debate again on Thursday in Sioux City, Iowa, in the final debate before the January 3 caucuses open the Republican nominating race.
Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Editing by Todd Eastham and Eric Walsh