Newt Gingrich came under heavy fire from his rivals during a presidential debate Saturday night, with Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann hammering the former House Speaker over his support for an individual health care mandate, his long career in Washington, his personal life and even his advocacy for a lunar colony to mine the moon's natural resources.
Romney, who is widely seen as Gingrich's chief rival for the nomination, was also a target in Des Moines Saturday, with Perry and Bachmann casting the two frontrunners as insufficiently conservative.
The debate marked the first time that Gingrich, who has risen to the top of the polls in the Republican presidential race, has been aggressively criticized during a presidential debate.
The fireworks kicked off when Romney was asked where he differs with Gingrich. "We can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon," Romney said, prompting laughter from the audience. (Gingrich has called for "a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the Moon's resources.") He went on to oppose Gingrich's proposal to eliminate some child labor laws and his desire to eliminate capital gains taxes for the rich before calling himself someone who has a different background from Gingrich because he has "spent my life in the private sector."
Gingrich shot back with this. "Let's be candid - the only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost [a Senate race] to Teddy Kennedy in 1994." (Later, Romney said that was true - but added that "losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing I could have done for preparing me for the job I'm seeking." He added that "we need people from outside Washington. Outside K Street" - a reference to Gingrich's career after leaving the House.) Gingrich drew applause when he defended his position on child labor, saying poor children should be allowed to replace unionized janitors in their schools.
Paul, who has been running a commercial deeming Gingrich a hypocrite, then went after the former House speaker, saying he's had multiple positions "on so many issues" and has taken positions that are not conservative.
"He supported the TARP [bailout]," Paul said. "The other thing really which should annoy a lot of people, he received a lot of money from Freddie Mac." Paul went on to suggest Gingrich effectively received taxpayer money from the mortgage giant. Gingrich countered with a smile that he was "in the private sector," prompting Romney to say, "K Street is not the private sector."
Bachmann came next, attacking Gingrich, who was never a registered lobbyist but brokered influence on behalf of Freddie Mac and others, as "the epitome of the establishment" for "taking money to influence the outcome of legislation in Washington."
She then grouped Romney and Gingrich together as "Newt Romney" for what she cast as their support for "Obamacare," cap and trade legislation and "the illegal immigration problem." (Gingrich responded by effectively accusing Bachmann of lying, while Romney laughed at the notion that he and Gingrich are twins.)
Perry picked up that line of argument, hitting both Gingrich and Romney backing an individual mandate. When Perry suggested Romney backed an individual mandate for the nation - not just Massachusetts - in a book before changing the position in a later version, Romney challenged him to a $10,000 bet over whether Perry was telling the truth. Perry declined, saying he is "not in the betting business."
Later, the candidates were asked indirectly if Gingrich's personal history, which includes three marriages and an admission if infidelity, should matter. Perry said yes, saying he's "always been of the opinion you cheat on your wife, you cheat on your business partner." He said such behavior "sends a very powerful message."
Santorum said that while it's not a "disqualifier," certainly it's a factor and it should be a factor."
He suggested the issue goes to the question: "Who are you really? What is your center? What's your core?"
Gingrich, asked to address the question, called it a "real issue."
"I said up front openly, I've made mistakes at times," he said. "I've had to seek reconciliation. I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather. I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust."