Newly minted front-runner Newt Gingrich faced strong attacks from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in a nationally televised debate on Saturday night.
The former House speaker appeared to come away from the contest bloodied but unbowed.
Rapped as a lifelong Washington insider by his closest opponent, Mitt Romney, Gingrich replied: "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
"That's probably true," replied Romney, who lost that Massachusetts Senate contest before becoming the state's governor in 2002. He then quipped that if he had achieved his childhood dream, "I would have been a football star all my life, too."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann joined in the attacks on Gingrich, who now leads in polls nationally and in Iowa. The state's caucuses on Jan. 3 will kick off the competition for Republican National Convention delegates who will pick an opponent to President Barack Obama.
All six Republicans on stage assailed Obama's handling of the economy, the overriding issue of the election, yet split down the middle on legislation making its way toward a year-end vote in Congress to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut into 2012. Romney, Gingrich and Paul said they favoured it. Bachmann, Texas Gov., Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said they opposed the measure.
Whatever the impact of their differences on the presidential race, the internal disagreement could well portend difficulties for legislation that Obama has proposed and Republican leaders in Congress view as essential if the party is to avoid being tagged for raising taxes.
The tone of the debate was generally respectful, the stakes ever higher as six rivals met onstage in the Iowa capital city. The debate was the 12th since the long campaign began and the first since Herman Cain's candidacy imploded after allegations of sexual harassment and an extra-marital affair.
Gingrich's personal life has become a campaign issue, too, and it came up briefly Saturday night. Asked whether marital fidelity was a valid concern for voters choosing a candidate, Perry said, "If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner. It's a characteristic people look at."
Gingrich, who has been divorced twice and has admitted past infidelity, agreed the issue was an important one, then added: "I've made mistakes at times and I've had to go to God for forgiveness."
While Gingrich got most of the attention, the other contenders sought to stand out.
Both Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann tried to link Romney and Gingrich, saying neither was a true conservative. Both Romney and Gingrich still face skepticism from the ultra-conservative tea party movement.
Bachmann referred repeatedly to "Newt-Romney," saying the two hold similar views on health care, illegal immigration, cap-and-trade legislation and the payroll tax cut extension.
Paul said he, unlike the others, often took lonely conservative stands in Congress. "I end up sometimes, believe it or not, voting all by myself, thinking 'why aren't there people paying attention?' "
On another issue brought up by Paul, Gingrich denied he had ever lobbied for Freddie Mac, a quasi-government agency that paid him at least $1.6 million to provide strategic advice.
Gingrich also defended his recent statement that Palestinians are an "invented" people. Several of his rivals said they generally agreed with his description, but Romney said that with the remark, the former speaker may well have made it more complicated for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to move toward peace with Palestinians.
He said it is important to show sobriety, care and stability, an unspoken accusation against Gingrich, adding, "I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally."
Gingrich responded by declaring he was a conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan, a president who he said spoke the truth, as when he called the Soviet Union the "evil empire."
Gingrich's decision to invoke Kennedy, the late senator from Massachusetts, served as a dual reminder that Romney has been running for office since the mid-1990s and also that he lost to the man whose politics conservatives detested above all others.