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GOP Debate: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich Take First Jabs

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images(DES MOINES, Iowa) -- Less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, six Republican presidential candidates faced off Saturday night in a high-stakes presidential debate dominated by the question of who's the most consistent conservative.

The debate, sponsored by ABC News, Yahoo! News, WOI-TV, The Des Moines Register and the Iowa Republican Party at Drake University in Des Moines, comes less than a month before the Iowa Caucus, the first official test of primary preference in the country, scheduled for Jan. 3.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wasted little time going after frontrunner Newt Gingrich, accusing him of being a "career politician" with unusual -- at times liberal -- ideas.

"Speaker Gingrich and I have a lot of places where we disagree," Romney said. "We can start with his idea to have a lunar colony to mine minerals from the moon ... child labor laws so kids could clean schools ... remove capital gains for the wealthiest Americas...

"But our real difference is in our backgrounds," Romney said, turning to blast Gingrich as a Washington insider.

"The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," Gingrich replied, going on to offer a robust defense of his agenda.

But Romney didn't back down.

"If I had been able to get in the NFL as a kid, I would have been a football star too. But I spent my life in the private sector. We don't need folks who are lifetime Washington people to get this country out of the mess it's in -- we need people outside Washington, outside K street," he said, jabbing at Gingrich's experience.

Paul also took a jab at Gingrich.

"He's been on so many positions on so many issues," he said, noting Gingrich's support for a single-payer health care system, TARP funds and even accepting money from Freddie Mac, a government agency. "You might have a little bit of trouble competing with me on consistency."

The debate -- the 12th for the Republican candidates this year -- comes at a crucial moment, as Gingrich continues a dramatic surge in the polls and ousted frontrunner Romney and his allies launch scathing attacks from all sides.

Gingrich leads the pack with 33 percent support among likely caucus goers in Iowa, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. Romney and Paul are trailing in Iowa at 18 percent each.

The former House speaker also holds impressive leads in two other key early states -- South Carolina and Florida -- with 23 percent support among likely GOP primary voters, according to the most recent CNN-Time magazine polls.

He is also positioned well in hypothetical 2012 match-ups with President Obama in swing states Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, new Quinnipiac University polls found.

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