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Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich sought to defend his front-runner status in the Republican presidential race as his rivals, led by Michele Bachmann, questioned his electability and record in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.
Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s chief rival who has been trying to stop his momentum, eased off charges he leveled against the former U.S. House speaker and argued his business background gives him the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.
Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who needs a strong showing in the Jan. 3 caucuses that start the nomination process to remain viable, asserted herself as Gingrich’s most aggressive attacker in the debate last night in Sioux City, Iowa.
Saying he had sold his influence, she criticized Gingrich for the $1.6 million in consulting fees he received after leaving Congress from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage company.
“We can’t have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” she said, referring to a second government-backed mortgage company. “They need to be shut down, not built up.”
Gingrich, who said he now advocates breaking up the two companies, insisted his work involved no lobbying while defending his fees as legitimate compensation for a private business person.
‘Factually Not True’
“What she just said is factually not true,” he said of Bachmann’s attacks. “I never lobbied under any circumstance.”
Bachmann, 55, also said Gingrich, 68, hasn’t taken strong enough anti-abortion stances to be the Republican nominee. She focused her criticism on his stated willingness while a congressional leader to campaign for Republicans who supported what she called the “barbaric” procedure of partial-birth abortion.
“The Republican Party can’t get the issue of life wrong,” she said. “This is a seminal issue.”
Gingrich said his anti-abortion voting record was close to 100 percent during his 20 years as a House member. He also said that, while he was opposed to partial-birth abortion, he hadn’t been in the business of trying to decide which members of his party to “purge.”
As he again accused Bachmann of getting her facts wrong, he drew a rebuke from her.
“I think it’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debates that I don’t have my facts right,” she said. “I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate.”
Gingrich at the start of the two-hour debate was called upon to defend his conservative credentials, which have been questioned by his opponents as he has risen in polls during the last month.
He defended himself by saying “it’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan” and “had a 30-year record of conservatism is somehow not a conservative.”
Romney, 64, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, argued that his decades of experience in the private sector would help him debate Obama next year and sought to use to his advantage an attack by Gingrich in recent days.
Gingrich had said Romney, co-founder of the Boston-based private-equity fund Bain Capital LLC, made part of his fortune through moves that destroyed jobs.
“The president is going to level the same attack,” Romney said. “He’s going to go after me and say, you know, in businesses that you’ve invested in, they didn’t all succeed. Some failed, some laid people off. And he’ll be absolutely right. But if you look at all the businesses we invested in, over 100 different businesses, they added tens of thousands of jobs.”
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas said he doesn’t think Republicans need to worry too much about electability.
“Anybody up here could probably beat Obama,” Paul said. “I think he’s beating himself.”
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania took a subtle jab at Gingrich when discussing electability.
“We need someone who is strong in their political and personal life,” said Santorum, 53.
Romney and his wife, Ann, have also started to talk more about their 42-year marriage, an indirect contrast to Gingrich’s three marriages and admission of an extramarital affair.
Asked about changes on issues he has made during his political career -- including moving from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent -- Romney denied he switched views for political reasons.
“Sometimes I was wrong,” he said. “Where I was wrong, I’ve tried to correct myself.”
Paul, 76, said he would be reflecting the will of most voters when he was asked about his concerns that U.S. policy toward Iran is too belligerent.
“I’d be running with the American people because it would be a much better policy,” he said. “It’s another Iraq coming. It’s war propaganda going on.”
That drew fire, again from Bachmann.
“I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul,” she said to a mixture of cheers and boos. “The reason why I would say that is because we know without a shadow of a doubt that Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map and they’ve stated they will use it against the United States of America.”
Gingrich and Romney praised Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon for releasing yesterday a bipartisan plan to overhaul Medicare, the government health program for the elderly. The plan would give people turning 65 years old starting in 2022 the ability to choose between the existing system, where the government pays hospital and doctors’ bills for seniors, and an alternative system of regulated private insurance plans.
Gingrich gave Romney credit for suggesting an idea adopted in the plan, and called the proposal “a big step forward.” Romney termed it “an enormous achievement.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has struggled in the previous debates, compared himself with Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who faced questions about whether he could play well enough in the National Football League and has amassed a winning record.
“I’m kind of getting where I like these debates,” said Perry, 61. “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.”
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who isn’t actively campaigning in Iowa while focusing on New Hampshire -- site of the race’s first primary on Jan. 10 -- said the nation has both an economic and trust deficit.
“We are getting screwed as Americans,” said Huntsman, 51.
Bret Baier of Fox News moderated the debate, broadcast live from a convention center in Sioux City. Located in Iowa’s northwest corner, the area has the state’s greatest concentration of registered Republicans.
It was the 13th formal Republican debate this year and is the final session before Iowa’s caucuses. It also could be the last for one or more of the candidates, since poor performances in the caucuses have immediately winnowed the field in the past.
That heightened the pressure for the candidates to use the occasion to maintain or build momentum as they head into a week during which most will be crisscrossing Iowa and seeking support from undecided voters before a quiet period of two or three days in observance of Christmas.
Gingrich’s campaign has indicated he will spend every day in Iowa from Dec. 27 until the Jan. 3 caucuses. He needs a win to match the expectations that have accompanied his surge in the polls.
Some Republican officials, including some who have dealt with Gingrich over the years, have also raised questions about him. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican who has said he isn’t likely to endorse before the caucuses, told the Associated Press yesterday that he has some concerns about Gingrich.
“Whether he has the discipline and the focus, I don’t know,” he said.
Helping shape the race’s storyline this weekend will be an endorsement from the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper. Candidates often use such endorsements in their advertising and they can sway undecided voters.
The paper also is expected to conduct one final Iowa Poll that will offer a snapshot of the race in its closing days.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Sioux City, Iowa, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Kristin Jensen in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org