The six Republican presidential candidates at Saturday night's debate threw plenty of punches at one another -- even if none scored a decisive knockout.
Far from the amicable tone of recent gatherings, the Iowa debate featured a torrent of criticism -- an indication that the state’s Jan. 3’s caucuses are only three weeks away. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the race’s two front-runners, produced some of the campaign’s biggest sparks so far while attacking each other.
The greatest blow of the night might have been self-inflicted, when Romney suggested that he and Texas Gov. Rick Perry make a $10,000 bet on whether he had once believed the country should adopt an individual health care mandate. The comment will likely further criticism that Romney, whose family is personally wealthy, is out-of-touch with average Americans; Democrats gleefully pounced on the comment before the debate even ended.
The other candidates on stage – Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum –- didn’t back off, either. At times they personally derided both Gingrich and Romney as unfit for the party’s presidential nomination.
The debate likely won’t change the course of the campaign, but it did outline many of the criticisms that will dominate the Hawkeye State campaign’s home stretch. The fireworks began almost immediately after the debate started, when Romney began lambasting an array of Gingrich proposals, including building a lunar colony and eliminating child-labor laws in some cases. Most significantly, the ex-Massachusetts governor said his private-sector background game him a leg-up on the man who served in congress for nearly two decades.
The elicited one of the moments of the debate from Gingrich, who retorted: “Let's be candid,” he said. “The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994” -- a reference to Romney's unsuccessful Senate bid against the late Massachusetts Democrat.
Another contentious moment came when moderator George Stephanopoulous questioned whether it was appropriate for Gingrich, as he did earlier this week, to call Palestinians an “invented” people. Gingrich defended his remarks, but Romney said they exacerbated an already difficult situation.
“If Bibi Netanyahu wants to say what you said, let him say that. But our ally, the people of Israel, should be able to take their own positions,” said Romney. He added: “I'm not a bomb thrower. Rhetorically or literally.”
Bachmann rebuked Romney and Gingrich on their conservative credentials—dubbing them, collectively, "Newt Romney."
“If you look at Newt Romney, they were for Obamacare principles. If you look at Newt Romney, they were for cap-and-trade [on greenhouse gas emissions],” Bachmann said. “If you look at Newt Romney, they were for the illegal immigration problem. And if you look at Newt Romney, they were for the $700 billion bailout. You just heard Newt Romney is also with Obama on the issue of the payroll extension.
“If you want a difference," she concluded, "Michelle Bachman is the proven conservative. It’s not Newt Romney,” Bachmann said, to applause from the audience.
Earlier, Romney sought to draw distinctions without attacking Gingrich directly. The debate’s first question asked each candidate how they would reboot the country’s economy, and immediately the former Massachusetts governor highlighted his background in the private sector.
“Having spent my life in the private sector, I understand where jobs are created,” said Romney, standing next to Gingrich on the debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa. “They're not created in government. They're not created in Washington. They're created on main streets and streets all over America.”
Gingrich has denied that he ever supported the cap-and-trade proposal, which passed the House in 2009 with largely Democratic support but failed in the Senate. But the political fact-checking website PolitiFact labeled that claim "false," saying he has at times favored it when combined with other approaches.
Romney has sought to distinguish himself from the former speaker of the House by touting his business background, where he worked at a venture capital fund. But in a telling sign of his place atop the polls, Romney actually was asked second about his economic plan, after Gingrich. The ex-congressman from Georgia touted a plan to lower taxes, including elimination of the capital gains and death taxes.
Bachmann, meanwhile, used the question to mention Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race last week.
“One of our former competitors was Herman Cain and he always reminded us of the ‘9-9-9’ plan,” she said. “And what I would like to do is have the win-win-win plan, and the way we do that is first addressing the tax code.”
Health Care Harangues
Gingrich acknowledged that his support for a federal health insurance mandate originated in the early 1990s when, as a House Republican leader, he opposed a health care reform plan proposed by President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was a potentially dangerous admission for the former speaker, who is fighting charges that he has often strayed from conservative principles during his decades-long career in politics.
“Virtually every conservative saw the mandate as a less dangerous future than what Hillary was trying to do,” he said. “… I was try to find a way to make sure the people who could afford it were paying their hospital bills. And that's what we were wrestling with.”
He made it clear that he thought the mandate is clearly unconstitutional now.
Gingrich and Romney both have both been on the defensive about their past support for a health care mandate this debate – while Bachmann was Gingrich’s inquisitor, Rick Perry attacked Romney for his support for a health insurance requirement in Massachusetts. It was a replay of the debates held months ago when Perry, then seen as Romney’s chief rival, squared off against the former governor.