Gingrich, Romney on the Defensive in Last Debate Before Iowa Caucus

BY News Desk  December 16, 2011 at 8:30 AM EDT

GOP debate in Iowa; photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The seven Republican presidential contenders debated Thursday in Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The bell never rang for the Newt Gingrich vs. Mitt Romney fight many expected at Thursday night’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa, as the two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination were put on the defensive by the other candidates as well as the Fox News moderators.

Gingrich was asked at the outset about his electability, a key question mark surrounding his candidacy, with polls showing Romney faring better in a head-to-head matchup against President Obama.

“I think it’s fair to say that my commitment to discipline and systematic work is fairly obvious,” Gingrich argued. “I strive for very large changes. And I’m prepared to really try to lead the American people to get this country back on the right track, and that’s a very large change.”

Gingrich was also pressed to rebut charges leveled by Romney this week that he is an “unreliable conservative.”

“I think on the conservative thing, it’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30-year record of conservatism is somehow not a conservative,” Gingrich responded.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who needs a strong showing in Iowa to jump-start his candidacy, took aim at Gingrich’s record while speaker of the House in the 1990s.

“The speaker had a conservative revolution against him when he was the speaker of the House,” Santorum argued. “We need someone who’s strong in their political and personal life to go out and contrast themselves with the president — and make him the issue in this campaign.”

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann landed perhaps the sharpest blow on Gingrich when she went after him for the work he did with the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac after leaving Congress. Gingrich reportedly received around $1.6 million for what he has described as providing strategic advice.

Bachmann was asked what evidence she had to support her claim that Gingrich had engaged in influence peddling.

“It’s the fact that we know that he cashed paychecks from Freddie Mac. That’s the best evidence that you can have,” Bachmann said.

“That’s just not true,” Gingrich shot back. “What she just said is factually not true. I never lobbied under any circumstance. I never went in and suggested in any way that we do this.”

Bachmann accused Gingrich of missing the larger picture. “You don’t need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence-peddling with senior Republicans in Washington, D.C., to get them to do your bidding. And the bidding was to keep this grandiose scam of Freddie Mac going.”

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has surged in the Iowa polls, also criticized Gingrich for his Freddie Mac involvement, saying the $1.6 million he received came at the expense of the American people.

“It’s literally coming from the taxpayer,” Paul charged. “They went broke. We had to bail them out,” Paul said, referring to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. “So, indirectly, that was money that he ended up getting.”

Bachmann later accused Gingrich for not standing up strongly enough on social issues, citing his decision to support Republican candidates even if they did not object to the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.

“Sometimes, Congresswoman Bachmann doesn’t get her facts very accurate,” Gingrich declared, before launching into a defense of his pro-life record.

That drew a sharp rebuke from Bachmann: “I think it’s outrageous to — to continue to say over and over through the debates that I don’t have my facts right when, as a matter of fact, I do. I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States, and my facts are accurate. Speaker Gingrich said that he would actively support and campaign for Republicans who got behind the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion.”

“What I said on that particular issue is I wouldn’t go out and try to purge Republicans. Now, I don’t see how you’re going to govern the country if you’re going to run around and decide who you’re going to purge,” Gingrich responded.

While Bachmann and Paul teamed up to hammer Gingrich, they also traded barbs with each other, over Iran. Paul warned against “overreaction,” saying the United States could be headed toward another war. Bachmann called Paul’s stance “dangerous” for America’s security.

Paul’s foreign policy isolationist views may help him with Libertarians, but they put him at odds with most Republicans and will likely limit the level of support he’ll be able to draw going forward.

Romney, meanwhile, was pressed by Fox News moderator Chris Wallace about his views on abortion, gay marriage and gun rights over the last decade — and whether his shifting positions on those issues were based on principle or politics.

The former Massachusetts governor said he took exception with two of the three, arguing he has opposed same-sex marriage throughout his career and has “always supported” the Second Amendment.

He acknowledged that his views on abortion rights had evolved. “I have learned over time, like Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and others, my experience in life over 17, 18, 19 years, has told me that sometimes I was wrong.”

“Where I was wrong, I’ve tried to correct myself,” Romney added.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry raised some eyebrows by likening himself to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. When asked about his shaky debate performances and whether he would be able to matchup effectively with President Obama, Perry noted there were doubters of Tebow’s ability to play quarterback in the NFL, but he had proved them wrong. “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses,” Perry said.

The reference to Tebow, who has long been open about his Christian faith, is yet another sign that Perry is making a strong play for religious voters in Iowa, a key part of the GOP caucus-going electorate.

SHUTDOWN AVERTED

Negotiators in the House and Senate were able to untangle a mess of issues Thursday and come to an agreement on a $1 trillion spending bill to fund major government agencies through the rest of the fiscal year. Congress would have to pass the plan, or a short-term stopgap spending measure, before the end of the day Friday to prevent a lapse in funding for the Treasury Department, Department of Defense and dozens of other agencies and programs.

David Rogers at Politico has a rundown on the scope of spending measure:

Filling more than 1,200 pages, the giant appropriations bill is remarkable for its reach, covering the heart of the domestic budget, the Pentagon and foreign aid — plus tens of billions more related to the war in Afghanistan. Yet in recent days, it has been tossed about like a ragdoll among fighting children, even as Washington steamed toward a funding cutoff Friday night, when the latest stopgap resolution expires.

The White House played no small part in this spat, dismissing the measure as “Washington’s business” and stalling action so as to gain leverage for Obama’s higher priority — extending the payroll tax holiday. House Republicans retaliated by dumping the contents of the draft House-Senate agreement onto the Internet in the middle of the night Thursday. By the time dawn broke, leaders in both parties knew they had to move fast if the giant package were to be salvaged.

Still left to be resolved is a dispute over how to pay for the payroll tax cut extension and extended unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of the year.

On Thursday, President Obama urged members of Congress not to go home for a holiday break until they found a way to pay for those priorities.

Every economist indicates that it’s important for us to extend the payroll tax cut and make sure that unemployment insurance is extended.  So this Congress cannot and should not leave for vacation until that — until they have made sure that that tax increase doesn’t happen.  Let me repeat that: Congress should not and cannot go on vacation before they have made sure that working families aren’t seeing their taxes go up by $1,000 and those who are out there looking for work don’t see their unemployment insurance expire.

Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear explain where negotiations stand on reaching a deal on the payroll tax cut:

While both sides have spent much of the week trying to outmaneuver one another, Thursday seemed to presage the second stage of what has become a familiar pattern in the 112th Congress — the ratcheting back of Stage 1, which is recriminations via news conference — on the road to Stage 3: a final, grudging compromise.

At a minimum, the Senate, which has until Dec. 31 to act on the payroll tax before it reverts to a higher level, will seek a two-month stopgap extension of the payroll tax holiday, unemployment insurance and Medicare payment rates for doctors, at a cost of an estimated $40 billion. Senate leaders were still hoping to reach a deal on a longer-term plan.

While Democrats have dropped their idea of imposing a surtax on income over $1 million, they are now considering a plan that would find savings in other ways, including fees on the federal housing finance agencies, and could seek to end certain deductions and other tax benefits for millionaires.

A two-month extension would ensure that tax cuts for working families will again become a political football in the midst of the 2012 campaign. That could allow Republicans to extract concessions from the president and his allies in order to renew it, but also give Mr. Obama another opportunity to focus on his economic equality message.

LIGHTS OUT

Remember when Republicans wanted to stop Department of Energy standards that would result in manufacturers creating more energy efficent light bulbs? As of Friday morning, language in the omnibus spending bill blocks those standards, according to Darren Samuelson at Politico:

The shutdown-averting budget bill will block federal light bulb efficiency standards, giving a win to House Republicans fighting the so-called ban on incandescent light bulbs.

GOP and Democratic sources tell POLITICO the final omnibus bill includes a rider defunding the Energy Department’s standards for traditional incandescent light bulbs to be 30 percent more energy efficient.

DOE’s light bulb rules — authorized under a 2007 energy law authored signed by President George W. Bush — would start going into effect Jan. 1. The rider will prevent DOE from implementing the rules through Sept. 30.

But Democrats said they could claim a “compromise” by adding language to the omnibus that requires DOE grant recipients greater than $1 million to certify they will upgrade the efficiency of their facilities by replacing any lighting to meet or exceed the 2007 energy law’s standards.

The issue was popular among Tea Party conservatives as an example of onerous big government.

ON THE TRAIL

All events listed in Eastern Time.

  • President Obama attends meetings at the White House and delivers remarks at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington at 2:10 p.m.
  • Mitt Romney discusses jobs and the economy in Sioux City, Iowa, at 9:30 a.m., and holds a rally in Greenville, S.C., at 4:30 p.m.
  • Michele Bachmann kicks off her Iowa bus tour, making stops in Sioux City at 11:45 a.m., Le Mars at 12:30 p.m., Orange City at 1:45 p.m., Rock Rapids at 3:25 p.m., Sibley at 4:45 p.m., Primghar at 5:45 p.m., Cherokee at 6:50 p.m. and Storm Lake at 7:45 p.m.
  • Rick Perry holds a pair of Iowa meet-and-greets — in Cherokee at 2:30 p.m. and Storm Lake at 4:30 p.m.
  • Rick Santorum attends a house party in Sioux City, Iowa, at 8 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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