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.
The Marriage Question
A question from the Des Moines Register posed a quandry for the thrice-married Gingrich: Should voters consider marital fidelity when making their choices for president?
Perry, who has been stepping up his family-values message, got the first response: “Not only did I make a vow to my wife, I made a vow to God,” he said. “And that's pretty heavy lifting in my book. When I make a vow to God, then I would suggest to you that's even stronger than a handshake in Texas.”
Later, in a not-so-subtle swipe at Gingrich, Perry added: “I've always been of the opinion if you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner.”
Bachmann used the question to argue that character counts. "Who are you really? What is your center? What's your core? What's drives you? So people want to know what's your faith. I'm a Christian. I'm unashamed about that," Bachmann said. She also said that she's happy to talk about her family, and her husband, in order for voters to get to know her better.
When it was Gingrich's turn, he delivered a measured response. "I think people have to render judgment" on whether marital fidelity matters, he said. "In my case, I said up front openly, I've made mistakes at times. "I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust."
Stephanopoulous brought up Gingrich’s controversial statement that the Palestinians are an “invented” people, a comment Gingrich made in an interview with a Jewish network that has drawn intense criticism from Palestinians.
“That’s just stirring up trouble,” Rep. Ron Paul said of Gingrich’s comments.
But Gingrich did not back down.
“Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it factually true? Yes,” Gingrich said. It’s “time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East’,” he added, to applause.
Romney, seeking to be diplomatic, responded that he agreed with most of what Gingrich said—except for his opponent’s characterization of the Palestinians as an invented people. Romney criticized Gingrich for throwing “incendiary words” into a dangerous political situation; and said that, if he were president, he would speak with “sobriety and care.”
“I'm not a bomb thrower. Rhetorically or literally,” Romney said.
Shooting back, Gingrich compared himself to former President Ronald Reagan.
“I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth,” he said. “Just as it was Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire. Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and reframed the world.”
The question was useful to characterize both candidates – Romney, the pragmatist, and Gingrich, the rhetorical bomb-thrower. Romney is likely argue Gingrich’s statement proves he doesn’t have the sensibility to be president, an argument that his surrogates made in earnest earlier this week.
Newt Holds Firm on Immigration
Gingrich also stuck to his belief that some longtime illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country, an issue that has already proven volatile on the campaign trail but one the former House speaker apparently refuses to back down from.
He reiterated his plan, outlined during the last debate, to allow local citizen-review boards to determine if illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country. They would not be given citizenship, he said.
“I do not believe the people of the United States are going to send the police in to rip that kind of person out and ship them out of this country,” said Gingrich.
Critics said Gingrich’s plan amounted to amnesty, a charge he denies.
Romney offered a more hawkish immigration view, saying Gingrich's proposal is a poor plan whether or not it is “technically” amnesty. Illegal immigrants should be sent back to their home countries, he said.
“They should be given some transition period of time to allow them to settle their affairs and then return home,” said Romney.
One of the debate questions, sent in from a Yahoo! reader, hit a personal note—asking the candidates when they last faced a financial strain. It created a contrast between the governor and former governor onstage, with Perry getting a chance to talk about his hardscrabble Texas upbringing.
When it was his turn, Romney said, “I didn’t grow up poor," adding that if voters want to elect someone with that background, he's not that person. But he argued that his parents raised him to work hard, and mentioned his time serving “his church overseas” and as a “pastor” in the Mormon Church -- an experience, he said, taught him about the challenges poor families face.
Asked to cite an example of cutting back during difficult economic times, Santorum pivoted to the central issue of his campaign: family values. The former senator said he was blessed to have both a mother and father growing up, a union that is critical to the country's well being.
"So what we can do as a federal government, we can do more importantly as a leader of this country is try to promote this institution of marriage," he said. "Try to promote the family."
Payroll Tax Tussle
Moderator Diane Sawyer brought up the pending payroll tax cut extension in Congress, noting that the candidates are divided on the issue.
Bachmann and Santorum argued against the extension, saying that the payroll tax is needed to fund Social Security. Romney pivoted. “I don’t want to raise taxes on people,” he begins, and said the tax cut will “help people in a very difficult time.”
But he then shifted to attacking Obama’s handling of the economy, calling the payroll tax cut just another “Band-aid” that would not fix the economy's long-term problems.
At Debate's End, A Lovefest
The last question of the night gave the candidates a chance to pat each other on the back: What have they learned from one of their challengers onstage?
Santorum praised Gingrich, saying he listened to Gingrich's tapes as a young man running for Congress for the first time. “He laid out a vision for conservative governance that I adopted,” Santorum said.
Paul drew plaudits from both Perry and Romney. Perry praised Paul for getting him interested in the Federal Reserve; Romney highlighted Paul’s ability to rally his supporters.
“One of the things about Ron Paul that always amazes me is when I come to the debate like this, the only signs I see are the Ron Paul people,” Romney said.
Gingrich said that Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad is his “role model," a line he hopes will help in potentially getting Branstad's endorsement. Gingrich also praised Perry, for raising awareness about the 10th Amendment, and Santorum’s “consistency and courage on Iran.”
Paul's praise was really praise for Paul himself. “I have learned that you should never give up on your opposition, because if you're persistent and you present your case, they will come your way," he said.
Bachmann returned to an earlier theme and gave a shout-out to Cain. “I think one thing he showed us is the power of being very plain-spoken. And also reducing something to a very simple level so people get [it],” she said.