DES MOINES, Iowa — With Newt Gingrich as their common
target, the Republican presidential hopefuls piled on the new party
front-runner in a lively debate Saturday night, jabbing him over his
political consistency, the sturdiness of his character and the
plausibility of his policy proposals.
One after another, rivals portrayed the former House
speaker — who looked on stern-faced — as an opportunist who changes his
beliefs to suit the political times and his personal ambitions.
“He’s been on different positions, you know, on so
many issues,” said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a theme picked up by others
on the Drake University stage who insisted they alone were the true
conservative who could best take the fight to President Barack Obama.
Gingrich’s history of marital infidelity arose when
the co-moderator, George Stephanopolous of ABC News, asked whether
voters ought to consider whether a candidate has been faithful to their
spouse when deciding who to support for president.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is avidly courting Iowa’s
social conservatives, responded firmly, saying that a politician who
will cheat on his wife cannot be trusted.
“If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on
your spouse, then why wouldn’t you cheat on your business partner, or
why wouldn’t you cheat on anyone for that matter?” Perry asked.
Gingrich, who is married to his third wife, Callista —
with whom he conducted an extramarital affair — seemed ready for the
question and agreed that voters ought to consider the matter. “I think
people have to look at a person to who they are going to loan the
presidency and they have a right to ask every single question,” he said.
Gingrich reiterated his prior statements that he had
made mistakes and sought forgiveness and that people ought to consider
who he is now: “I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people
have to measure who I am now and whether I am a person they can trust.”
The candidates initially seemed reluctant to engage. But once prodded by Stephanopolous, they quickly jumped in.
Mitt Romney, who has been running at or near the
front of polls until Gingrich’s recent surge, challenged Gingrich’s call
to colonize the moon and to change child labor laws so inner-city
students can go to work cleaning their classrooms. Romney contrasted his
background in the business world with Gingrich’s long career in
“Let’s be candid,” Gingrich shot back. “The only
reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy
Kennedy in 1994.”
The rejoinder — a reference to Romney’s unsuccessful
U.S. Senate bid before winning the Massachusetts governorship eight
years later — was the closest Gingrich came to showing pique.
Acting like the college lecturer he once was, he
rebutted his opponents point-by-point, saying, for instance, that
colonizing the moon would inspire students to study math and science and
putting poor students to work was a way to instill a healthy work
He also glossed over some facts, ignoring his past
support for cap-and-trade legislation to fight global warming, and
sidestepped others, defending his acceptance of more than $1.6 million
from Freddie Mac — the federal insurer he has attacked for causing the
housing crisis — by saying it was the sort of private sector work that
Romney was extolled.
“K Street’s not the private sector,” a laughing
Romney responded, referring to the corridor housing the Beltway’s major
The nearly two-hour session was the 12th of the
nominating season and the first since Gingrich rose from political
near-death to become the latest candidate to lead the pack, a status
confirmed by his front-and-center positioning on stage and the
proverbial bull’s-eye on his back.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, who enjoyed a brief stint at
the top of Iowa polls before falling back in the pack, cited Gingrich’s
past support for a mandate requiring individuals to purchase health
insurance, a provision of Obama’s health care plan that conservatives
revile. She noted Romney’s Massachusetts legislation had a similar
provision and, lumping to two together, suggested to voters, “If you
want a difference, Michele Bachmann is the proven conservative, not Newt
Gingrich defended his support for the mandate, which
he now opposes, by saying it was a the best way at the time to fight the
health care overhaul plan put forth in the 1990s under President Bill
Clinton. But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum echoed those
questioning Gingrich’s consistency, saying he came out against the
mandate even then.
The debate came at an important juncture in the
turbulent race, with the exit of erstwhile poll leader Herman Cain, the
surge of Gingrich and, not least, the impending arrival of Christmas and
New Year’s, which are competing for voters’ attention. (The
wall-to-wall TV advertising is unlikely to offer much in the way of good
cheer.) Iowa’s precinct caucuses, the first step in the presidential
selection process, will be held Jan. 3.
The candidates will meet again Thursday night at a second Iowa debate, scheduled for Sioux City.
©2011 Tribune Co.
Visit Tribune Co. at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services