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Gloves come off in GOP debate

Photo courtesy ABC News

DES MOINES, Iowa – On the campus of Drake University tonight, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich found themselves under fire, scrambling to defend their records from a feisty group of challengers.

Michele Bachmann ripped the lid off the can of worms by challenging inconsistencies in the records of Romney and Gingrich – who are leading in most national polls – while lumping the two candidates together as “Newt-Romney.”

“When you look at Newt Gingrich, for 20 years, he’s been advocating for the individual mandate in health care. That’s longer than Barack Obama,” Bachmann said. “Or if you look at Mitt Romney as the governor of Massachusetts, he’s the only governor that put into place socialized medicine.”

Then she began perhaps the night’s most memorable monologue: “If you look at Newt-Romney, they were for Obamacare principles. If you look at Newt-Romney, they were for cap and trade. 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. And you just heard Newt-Romney is also with Obama on the issue of the payroll extension.

“So if you want a difference, Michele Bachmann is the proven conservative,” she concluded. “It’s not Newt-Romney.”

Surging poll leader Gingrich had already been under fire from Ron Paul, who had defended his campaign ads accusing the former speaker of the House of “serial hypocrisy.”

“He’s been on different positions, you know, on so many issues,” Paul said of Gingrich, listing single-payer health insurance, TARP funds and Freddie Mac payments as evidence. “You have admitted many of the positions where you have changed positions. But you know, if you were looking for a consistent position, there’s a little bit of trouble [with] anybody competing with me on consistency.”

The exchanges left Gingrich on the defensive, especially after Bachmann’s blast.

“A lot of what you say isn’t true. Period,” Gingrich told the congresswoman. “I opposed cap and trade, I testified against it. … I fought against Obamacare at every step of the way.

“It’s important that you be accurate when you say these things,” he reiterated. “Those are not true.”

Romney also turned to the defensive, stating, “I know Newt Gingrich. And Newt Gingrich is a friend of mine. But he and I are not clones, I promise,” before defending his own record on health care.

But when given his chance to chime in, Rick Perry joined in the criticism of “Newt-Romney.”

“I’m stunned, ’cause the fact of the matter is, Michele kinda hit the nail on the head when we talked about the individual mandate,” Perry said. “Both of these gentlemen have been for the individual mandate. And I’m even more stunned, Mitt, that you said you wished you could’ve talked to Obama and said, ‘You’re goin’ down the wrong path,’ because that is exactly the path that you’ve taken Massachusetts.”

Perry continued, “The record is very clear. You and Newt were for individual mandates. And that is the problem. And the question is then, ‘Who can stand on the stage, look Obama in the eye, and say Obamacare is an abomination for this country?’ And I’m gonna do that.”

Perry pressed Romney, “I read your first book, and it said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts should be the model for the country. And I know it came out of the the reprint of the book. But, you know, I’m just sayin’, you were for individual mandates, my friend.”

Romney then dropped a bombshell by offering to bet Perry $10,000 he’s wrong about the content of his book.

Perry didn’t take the bet.

Rick Santorum, in a calmer voice, nonetheless added his own zinger challenging the records of Gingrich and Romney.

“This is not about what you say in a debate or what you say in a campaign when you’re talking to audiences that you know what [they] want to hear,” Santorum said.

Turning to Gingrich, he added, “You’ve strayed on that issue, as you have on others. The record is important. The question was about a consistent conservative. Well, you can’t talk about whether someone’s consistent unless you look at their record. And I’d agree with Michele.”

A commercial break tossed some cold water on the fire, but even before it erupted, Gingrich and Romney showed a willingness to go after one another as well.

Moderator George Stephanopoulos prompted the comparisons by asking Romney how his positions differed from Gingrich’s.

Romney pointed to lunar mining, child labor laws and capital gains, yet concluded, “But the real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds. I spent my life in the private sector.”

“Let’s be candid. The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich fired back. “You’d be a 17-year career politician by now if you had won.”

Romney, however, scored points with a solid response.

“If I would’ve been able to get into the NFL like I hoped when I was a kid, why, I woulda been a football star all my life, too,” he said. “But I spent my life in the private sector. Losing to Teddy Kennedy was probably the best thing … for preparing me for the job I’m seeking, because it put me back in the private sector.”

All the fighting good for Republicans?

After the debate, Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, told WND the only real “loser” of the debate was Barack Obama, because the Republican candidates showed they were willing and able to fight for what they believe in.

“What we saw was we have six candidates who are prepared to be president of the United States, but we also saw six candidates that are not going to take anything lying down,” Strawn said. “And even in a Republican primary or caucus, they’re going to aggressively prosecute their case as to why their policies, their beliefs, their backgrounds best suit them to be our nominee against Obama.”

He continued, “When you think about what we’re going to have to go into next year against a billion-dollar reelection machine, Republicans want somebody that they know is going to aggressively not just stand up for our conservative values but also aggressively prosecute the failures of the Obama administration.

“So I don’t see it as a bad thing,” he concluded. “I think it’s completely fair to have a spirited debate.”

Santorum, however, said after the debate that tonight’s spotlight on “Newt-Romney” should compel Republican voters to look away from the frontrunners.

“I think [the pointed debate] just points out the fundamental flaws in [Gingrich’s and Romney’s] candidacies,” he said, “that we need a candidate that can unite the Republican Party, that … is consistent on national security, economics and our moral cultural issues and has a track record of being able to be successful in promoting those values.”