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Republican Candidates Clash in Pivotal Iowa Debate

ABC News(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 24 days before the first GOP voters will reveal their preference for presidential nominee on Jan. 3.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wasted little time going after frontrunner and former House Speaker 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 have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon...He said that he would like to eliminate in some cases the child labor laws so that kids could clean schools... His plan in capital gains, to remove capital gains for people at the very highest level of income ..."

"But our real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds -- I spent my life in the private sector," Romney said, before 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."

Michele Bachmann also piled on Gingrich, attempting to paint him as a Washington insider by asserting that his office was located on "the Rodeo Drive of Washington D.C., K Street" -- a street lined lobbyists' offices.

Then she created a stir by introducing a new tag line for her rivals, lumping them all together as "Newt Romney" for their support of an individual health care mandate, cap and trade and illegal immigration.

Gingrich immediately countered by saying Bachmann's comments were "simply untrue."

"I fought against 'Obamacare' every step of the way. I think it's important for you -- and this is a fair game. It's important for to you be accurate when you say those things. I did no lobbying," Gingrich told Bachmann.

But, the congresswoman wasn't having it, coming back with another attack.

"This is such an important issue. We have one shot. Do we honestly believe two men who stood on this stage and defended 'Romneycare' and an individual mandate? Are they honestly going to get rid of it in 2012?" Bachmann said. "It's going to be a very heavy lift."

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.

Turning to the issue of the candidates' individual character, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been running ads in Iowa touting his family values and long-time marriage, took a veiled jab at Gingrich, who has been married three times and has admitted marital infidelity.

"If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner, so I think that issue of fidelity is important," Perry said.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he believes "character" is important, before Gingrich was given the opportunity to respond, saying voters need to "have a feeling that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency."

"I think people have to render judgment -- I've said in my case, I've made mistakes at times -- I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather and I think people have to measure what I do now," Gingrich said.

Halfway through the debate, the spat between Romney and Gingrich flared over the issue of Israel and personal friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gingrich defended the controversial comments he made Friday, when he said the Palestinian people were "invented." He said Saturday night that his statements were "factually correct."

"Is it historically correct? Yes. Are we in a situation where every day rockets are fired into Israel while the United States -- the current administration, tries to pressure the Israelis into a peace process. Hamas does not admit the right of Israel to exist and says publicly not a single Jew will remain," Gingrich said.

"It's fundamentally time for somebody to stand up and say enough lying about the Middle East," he said.

Romney said Gingrich's comments were reckless, and that he was speaking for Israel.

"We stand with the Israeli people. We are going to tell the truth, but we are not going to send incendiary words into a boiling pot when our friends the Israelis would say, 'What are you doing?'" Romney said.

Gingrich, looking at Romney in disbelief, retorted that he "did not speak for the people of Israel, I spoke as a historian," adding he has known Bibi Netanyahu since 1984, calling the Israeli prime minister by his nickname.

Romney countered, "I've also known Bibi for a long time," adding that they worked together at Boston Consulting Group.

"I will exercise sobriety," Romney said. "I wouldn't do anything that would alter this process. Before I do that, I get on the phone with my friend Bibi Netanyahu."

When Perry was given the chance to speak, he called the uproar over Gingrich's remarks a "minor" issue blown up by the media, channeling Gingrich's attacks on the media from other debates.

"This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said," he said.

Later, the candidates were asked about their childhood struggles and experiences through which they can identify with economically struggling Americans.

Romney admitted he "didn't grow up poor," but said his parents -- his father was the governor of Michigan, George Romney -- instilled a strong work ethic in their children because he "grew up with a dad that's poor."

Bachmann told a story she's told before, recounting her parent's divorce, which she called a "tragedy" that so many families in the country go through.

"My mom was a fulltime homemaker with four kids and we went below the poverty line overnight," mentioning that she had to start working at a young age.

"I know what it's like for single moms to struggle," Bachmann said. "We are still coupon-clippers today. ... We get what that feels like."

The very last question thrown at the candidates was what they have learned from one of their onstage rivals.

Rick Santorum said it was Newt Gingrich. As a 30 year old running for Congress—he won his first race at 32—he said he listened to Gingrich's audio tapes which helped him win that first race.

Rick Perry said it was fellow Texan, Ron Paul, who got him first "intrigued in the federal reserve."

"Congressman Paul is the individual on the stage that got me the most interested in a topic that I found most interesting," Perry said. "And I thank you for that," before adding that he also learned from the "people of this country."

Romney chose not to mention another candidate he learned from, but said he admired the movement that Paul has inspired mentioning when he goes to a debate the only signs he sees even in the freezing cold are Ron Paul signs.

"That enthusiasm in people that's exciting to watch," Romney said.

Gingrich said the governor of Iowa who was sitting in the second row was his role model, although not an opponent.

"Get out of politics for awhile..too old too experienced, to tied to the past, win the governorship decisively." As for a rival onstage he had learned from: Rick Santorum because he had the "courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time."

Bachmann mentioned Herman Cain, who left the race last week.

"You can't have a debate without mentioning 999 in a debate," Bachmann said adding that it's the "power of being plain spoken."

"I'm going to go with win, win, win instead of 999," Bachmann said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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