The Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich came under sustained fire throughout a two-hour televised debate in Iowa on Saturday night as rivals ranged wide over his views on the Middle East, his work as a lobbyist and his sex life.
With 24 days left to the Iowa caucus and only one more scheduled debate left, time is running out Gingrich’s rivals to cut into his double-digit poll leads.
His main rival, Mitt Romney, had a poor night. When everything else about this debate is forgotten it will still be remembered for Romney’s extraordinary bet with Texas governor Rick Perry over a point about healthcare.
Romney, who is worth between $190m and $250m, bet Perry $10,000 he was wrong, a challenge Perry turned down. Spin doctors for Romney’s rivals were quick to point out that the $10,000 line would harm him with voters, consolidating his reputation as being very rich. Few in Iowa, even if they were sure of a point, would dream of betting such an amount, one of Perry’s spin doctors said.
Gingrich escaped unscathed from the barbs and may even have strengthened his position with a performance that was composed and relaxed. At times in earlier debates Gingrich has been grumpy, but a relatively soft version turned up last night.
The closest he came to losing his temper came was when Romney, his main rival for the party nomination to take on Barack Obama next year, was asked what the main differences were between the two. Romney returned to his criticism that Gingrich was a career politician while he had spent his “life in the private sector”.
Gingrich, the former House speaker who has a reputation as a punchy debater, replied that Romney would have been a career politician for the last 17 years if he had not lost his bid for the Senate. “Let’s be candid. The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich said.
The latest poll in Iowa has Gingrich on 33%, Romney 20%, Ron Paul 17%, Perry 9%, Bachman 7%, Santorum 5% and Huntsman 1%. Huntsman was the only one not present, speaking instead at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, the next contest after Iowa.
Perry, who has fought a disastrous campaign so far, had his best debate night. Although low in the polls, he is planning to spend almost every day between now and January 3 in Iowa, other than a break for Christmas, and has millions of dollars to back his final push.
In the spin room afterwards, Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstromm laughed off the $10,000 bet, saying it was like a family member jokily betting $1m.
Bachman, Santorum and Paul were left as bystanders for much of the night.
In previous debates Gingrich was often on the sidelines, carping at the press for trying to create artificial divisions between the candidates, a line that went down well with Republicans. But his new eminence in the polls made him the target for most of the debate.
Bachman stood by her remark that he was a crony capitalist for taking money for lobbying, and Paul backed her up, also standing by his remark that Gingrich was a serial hypocrite.
Gingrich is three times married, after two affairs, having asked his second wife for divorce as she was in hospital recovering from a cancer operation. Perry, without naming Gingrich, said he had only one wife and had taken a vow to God – and that “if you cheat on your wife, you will cheat on your business partner … or anyone for that matter”.
The former speaker said he had made mistakes in his personal life and had had that discussion with God.
Romney raised Gingrich’s remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, describing as “incendiary” Gingrich’s claim that Palestinians were an “invented people”. Gingrich said it was historically true and that they had been part of the Ottoman Empire. He said he would tell the truth and accused Romney of being timid.
Gingrich said the Palestinians were still firing rockets at Israel – which is true – and said they included wild anti-semitic smears in their schoolbooks paid for by America – a charge that was once true but which Palestinians say is no longer the case.