(Updates with Gingrich comments starting in fourth paragraph. For more campaign news, go to ELECT.)
Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Tonight’s Republican debate in Iowa presents a field focused on the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich, who is shouldering criticism for comments he made to Jewish media about Palestinians and peace with Israel.
Calling the Mideast peace process “delusional,” Gingrich said in an interview with the Jewish Channel cable TV network that the Palestinians are “invented people.” Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, has emerged as Mitt Romney’s top challenger for the nomination less than a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses start the party’s nomination contests.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is Jewish, issued a statement today saying Gingrich “is wrong to think his attempt to turn the Palestinians into a non-people with no claim to a state will appeal to his audience on the Jewish Channel.”
After an appearance in Des Moines today, Gingrich told reporters he had no intention of losing his cool should he come under attack tonight.
“I’m going to go in, say a prayer, be a witness to what America needs to do, answer the questions directly and honestly, and see what happens,” he said.
Tonight’s debate, sponsored by ABC News and the Des Moines Register, will be broadcast live from Drake University in Des Moines. The gathering is also sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper, Yahoo.com, the Republican Party of Iowa and WOI-TV, a local ABC affiliate.
“We shouldn’t be tearing each other down,” Gingrich told about 150 supporters today at the opening of his Iowa headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa. “My campaign will be relentlessly positive.”
R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman, said in a statement today that the former speaker “supports a negotiated peace” between Israel and the Palestinians.
“However, to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history, which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing,” the statement said.
At his Iowa headquarters in Des Moines today, Romney avoided any direct criticism of Gingrich, something he left to surrogates earlier in the week.
“We want you guys to get out and get your friends to caucus and to do whatever has to get done on Jan. 3 to get out there and make a difference and make sure we select someone as our nominee who will win the presidency and will be able to get jobs back for our country,” he told about 120 supporters.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney after dropping out of the presidential race in August, also pointed to Romney’s potential electability at the rally.
“We need a person in that chair who we know has a steadiness,” he said. “Mitt Romney is the most knowledgeable and capable and electable candidate in this field.”
Tonight’s formal debate is the 12th this year for the Republican candidates, who will meet again on Dec. 15 in Sioux City, Iowa.
The debate will be the most intimate gathering the group has held to date, with just six candidates on stage following the departure from the race by businessman Herman Cain. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who isn’t actively campaigning in Iowa, didn’t meet polling criteria for participation.
The debate follows the release of a video by a political action committee supporting Romney that suggests Gingrich has a “ton of baggage” as a presidential candidate. The video was put forward by the group Restore Our Future, which said it plans to spend $3.1 million on advertising in Iowa.
“I don’t have any comment on anything that PACs are going to do or say,” Romney, 64, told reporters yesterday.
Romney advisers criticized Gingrich as “off message” and undisciplined in a call yesterday with reporters.
Mary Kramer, an Iowa supporter and a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados, pointed to Gingrich’s comments about Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“That’s one of the things that I think makes me a little bit nervous about Speaker Gingrich,” she said. “He sometimes makes comments that are open to very broad interpretations.”
Iowa State Representative Renee Schulte said Gingrich’s history of divorce presents “a contrast” with Romney’s 42-year marriage. “It’s not that anybody is trying to attack anybody: it’s just a difference,” she said.
Two of Gingrich’s top Iowa supporters chided Romney and his campaign headquarters in Boston for taking a more combative tone.
“What we’re seeing from Mitt Romney and Boston is desperation and panic,” Linda Upmeyer, chairwoman of Gingrich’s Iowa campaign effort, told reporters on a conference call.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and second-time presidential candidate, has campaigned for much of the year, mostly avoiding attacks on his opponents as he has kept his focus on President Barack Obama. That tone has changed since Gingrich has gained polling advantages in states with the earliest primaries and caucuses and in national polls.
In a meeting with the Register’s editorial board, Romney noted his business experience as he contrasted himself with Gingrich.
“Speaker Gingrich has spent the last 30, 40 years in Washington,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that. It’s just different.”
Romney told the newspaper that he isn’t concerned about Gingrich’s rise in the polls.
“My guess is that over time, Speaker Gingrich will follow a trajectory that will be unique to him but that will come down, and by the time we’ll finish with this, I’ll get the nomination,” he said. “If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be battling like I am. I expect to get the nomination.”
--With assistance from Silla Brush, Lisa Lerer and Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington. Editors: Ann Hughey, Christian Thompson.
To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Urbandale, Iowa, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com