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Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the two leading contenders in the Republican presidential race, faced attacks from rivals and assailed each other at a debate in Iowa tonight.
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker whose temperament for the presidency has been questioned by his opponents, came under attack for being a career politician.
Mitt Romney, who also found himself under assault, was the first to be drawn into an exchange with Gingrich.
“The real difference I believe is our backgrounds,” Romney said of Gingrich. “I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works. I believe that for Americans to say goodbye to President Obama and elect a Republican, they need to have confidence that the person they’re electing knows how to make this economy work again and create jobs for the American middle class.”
Gingrich sought to turn the tables on Romney, saying he would have been a Washington insider himself if he had won an election in Massachusetts almost 20 years ago against then Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
“Let’s be candid, the only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich said to Romney. “You would have been a 17-year career politician if you had won.”
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas charged that Gingrich has been “on different positions on so many issues,” as he criticized him for supporting the bank bailout in 2008 and for working as a consultant to the government-backed home mortgage company Freddie Mac.
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota targeted Gingrich and Romney on the issue of a government requirement that people purchase health insurance.
She took Gingrich to task for his support in 1993 of an individual mandate for purchasing health insurance when then- President Bill Clinton’s administration unsuccessfully tried to redesign the nation’s health-care system. And she attacked Romney for helping push into law, as governor of Massachusetts, a state law with an insurance mandate.
She repeatedly called the pair “Newt-Romney,” suggesting that they aren’t true conservatives and that she is.
“He and I are not clones,” Romney replied.
Also criticizing Romney on the insurance issue was Texas Governor Rick Perry. Romney disputed Perry’s statement that he would have supported the Massachusetts plan being expanded to other states, offering a $10,000 bet that Perry was wrong. Perry declined the wager.
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also participated in the debate, moderated by George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer of ABC News and broadcast on that network live from Drake University in Des Moines. It was also sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper, Yahoo.com, the Republican Party of Iowa and WOI-TV, an Iowa ABC affiliate.
It’s the 12th formal debate so far this year for the Republican candidates, who will meet again on Dec. 15 for a session in Sioux City, Iowa. The state is the site of the caucuses where the party’s first nomination voting will be held Jan. 3.
With the Iowa caucuses just more than three weeks away, tonight’s questioning held the potential to reshape a Republican contest that has been repeatedly altered by debates.
The debate was the first since businessman Herman Cain ended his campaign on Dec. 3 amid allegations of sexual indiscretions. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who isn’t actively campaigning in Iowa while focusing on New Hampshire -- site of the first primary in the race -- didn’t meet polling criteria for being part of tonight’s debate.
Gingrich, 68, moved to the top of polls partly because of his previous debate performances and because of Cain’s exit. He has emerged as Romney’s top challenger for the nomination.
None of the Republican candidates has a more abundant Washington record than Gingrich, who is receiving a closer examination from the media and his opponents now that he has become a front-runner in the race.
Even before the debate’s start, Romney’s campaign had started an all-out offensive against Gingrich’s record and leadership style.
Gingrich had the support of 25 percent of likely caucus participants in the latest Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register. Paul was next with 18 percent, followed by Romney at 16 percent. Sixty percent of poll participants said they could change their minds, while 11 percent said they are undecided.
-- Editors: Don Frederick, Jim McDonald
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