Gingrich Assailed at Last Debate Before Iowa

The former House speaker comes under heavy fire from his fellow contenders.

The Republican Party’s presidential candidates convened for a Fox News debate on Wednesday night which was their last opportunity to sway Iowa voters who caucus in January.

Newt Gingrich, who has emerged as the favorite in early primary states, came under fire from the other contenders Wednesday while Mitt Romney, previously the presumptive nominee, appeared in general election mode already, criticizing President Barack Obama far more than he did his fellow Republicans.

The Romney campaign’s strategy is positioning their candidate as the most electable contrary to the former House speaker whose grandiosity and willingness to assume different political positions makes him unattractive to both centrist voters and committed conservatives. Gingrich seemed irritated when questions were raised about his conservative credentials.

“I believe I can debate Barack Obama,” he said after summarizing his achievements as the Republican leader in Congress during the 1990s. He compared himself favorably to Ronald Reagan who was considered too radical by many in 1979 to run against Jimmy Carter but won the 1980 presidential election resoundingly.

The problem Gingrich faces in the primaries though is not that he’s considered an extremist rather a reactionary who lacks core convictions.

Whereas Gingrich’s rhetorical skills are almost universally recognized, Texas governor Rick Perry, who is a solid conservative, has stumbled in a number of the televised debates. Observers wonder how he might fare in a debate with President Obama. “I’ll talk about what we’ve done in the state of Texas,” he promised where they’ve been “national champions in jobs creation.”

Texas added 260,000 jobs in the last two years, nearly half of those created nationwide. The state has among the lightest tax regimes in the country.

“We need a president who has that governing, executive experience,” said Perry who criticized the incumbent for “learning on the job” and failing to lead on deficit reduction and entitlement reform.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney cited his private-sector experience as the best possible training he could have had for the presidency. “It helps to have created jobs.”

Gingrich has been critical of Romney’s “success” as an investor however, describing his record as one of “bankrupting companies and laying off employees.”

Romney, who was perceived as the frontrunner before Gingrich’s rise in the polls and still performs best against Obama in national surveys, defended his investment decisions on Wednesday night, arguing that companies sometimes need to fail and people sometimes have to lose their jobs if the free market is to work. He didn’t single out Gingrich for criticism but others did. They questioned Gingrich’s appreciation of the free market and portrayed him as a crony.

“We can’t have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” said Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. One of the government-sponsored enterprises that played a role in inflating the housing bubble paid Gingrich $1.6 million for what the former speaker says was “strategic advice.” Bachmann called it lobbying and so did Perry who lambasted the speaker for failing to “tell the difference between lobbying and consulting.”

Gingrich said, “I have never once changed my positions because of any kind of payment.”

While the speaker was tough on Bachmann, he wouldn’t vehemently criticize Romney. In fact, he praised him for putting out a plan to reform Medicare, the program that finances health care for seniors.

Gingrich and Romney both suggested that the next president will have to encourage bipartisanship in Washington DC. Neither party has been particularly inclined to compromise during this administration however with conservative activists in the Tea Party in particular insisting that their representatives not agree to any Democratic initiatives, including tax increases, to achieve a balanced budget.

When it came to extending a payroll tax cut, which the president has threatened to veto if Republicans condition their support for it on the construction of an oil pipeline, the former speaker was less willing to compromise. “I’m not backing down when you are totally wrong,” he told Obama.