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GOP DEBATE

Gingrich, Romney keep debate civil

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 16, 2011
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SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Seven of the Republican presidential hopefuls sparred last night in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, capping an extended series of lively debates as the candidates begin making final appeals to voters.

Much of the attention heading into the debate was on Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the two front-runners known for their seasoned debate skills who as of late have been exchanging increasingly hostile charges. Midway through the debate, Romney had yet to direct any firm accusations at Gingrich.

But Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota criticized Gingrich in harsh terms for being paid some $1.6 million in consulting fees by Freddie Mac. Gingrich defended the concept of encouraging home ownership, and in the face of heated arguments defended the earnings he took from the semipublic mortgage giant.

‘‘I did no lobbying of any kind for any organization,” Gingrich said. ‘That was a key part of any agreement we had.’’

‘‘Speaker Gingrich took $1.6 million!’’ Bachmann said. ‘‘You don’t need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence peddling with senior Republicans to have them do your bidding.’’

The debate comes three weeks before Iowans caucus on Jan. 3, and it could transform the race once more. Gingrich, who leads in polls both nationally and in Iowa, is fighting to keep his momentum.

Romney, who has never seemed truly threatened over the last year, has ramped up his attacks on Gingrich significantly. His campaign is also girding for a long slog toward the nomination, believing it is more organized and better financed for a race that will stretch far into next year.

Romney is coming off several interviews in which he has significantly intensified his criticism of Gingrich. He has called Gingrich ‘‘zany.’’

He has said the former House speaker has no reason to be critical of Romney’s wealth, given that Gingrich had a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany’s. He has also called on Gingrich to give back the consulting fees he was paid by Freddie Mac.

Gingrich has criticized Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, saying he would listen to Romney only if he would ‘‘give back all the money he has earned from bankrupting and laying off employees over his years at Bain.’’

But yesterday, three days after he made those comments, he began running ads here criticizing his opponents for being too negative.

‘‘Others seem to be more focused on attacks rather than moving the country forward,’’ Gingrich says in the ad. ‘‘That’s up to them.’’

Gingrich also told Iowa Public Television yesterday morning that he wishes he had not made the comment and added that Romney is ‘‘a good manager.’’

‘‘I do regret taking a shot at Mitt,’’ Gingrich said. ‘‘It was foolish on my part. He had taken one more shot at me that he knew wasn’t true and made an assertion that he knew was absurd, but it violated all the core principles I have in terms of trying to stay positive despite temptation.’’

Last night Romney defended his experience at Bain, saying that it taught him valuable lessons about how the economy works. ‘‘Government doesn’t create jobs, but the private sector does,’’ Romney said. ‘‘I spent my life, my career, in the private sector. I understand, by the way, from my successes and my failures what it’s going to take to put Americans back to work with high-paying jobs.’’

Romney also mentioned specific business decisions that he made, perhaps an indication that he will begin highlighting his business background in more specific terms than he has previously.

He hailed his choices with Staples, Bright Horizons Children’s Centers, and a steel mill in Indiana.

He said he made mistakes, but the one he mentioned was a decision not to invest in something that later became successful — not the types of decisions his political opponents have highlighted that led to job losses and bankruptcies.

‘‘I remember when the founders of JetBlue came to me and said, ‘Invest in us,’ ’’ Romney said. ‘‘I said, ‘Well that will never work.’ I got it wrong. Now one of my favorite airlines.’’

Gingrich was criticized several times in the debate for his long-standing ties to Washington and for at times straying from conservative ideology.

He sought to turn the latter critique to his advantage by highlighting his credentials in the party.

‘‘It’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned both with Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, somebody with a 30-year record of conservatism, is somehow not a conservative?’’ he said.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas and Representative Ron Paul of Texas have also been active lately. Perry is on a bus tour of Iowa, and Paul has been gaining ground in Iowa polls.

‘‘There are a lot of folks who said Tim Tebow wasn’t going to be a great NFL quarterback,’’ Perry said, referring to the Denver Broncos quarterback. ‘‘Am I ready for the next level? I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.’’

Last night may have been the last time on the debate stage for some of the candidates.

Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has placed much of his emphasis on Iowa, and a disappointing finish next month could cause him to leave the race.

‘‘We need someone who’s strong in their political and their personal lives take the case to Obama,’’ Santorum said.

Bachmann has also been focused on Iowa, and she showed some organizational strength by winning the state’s straw poll in August. But she has struggled to keep her momentum going.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who did not meet the requirements set for last week’s debate, took part last night. Huntsman, who has staked his campaign on New Hampshire, has visited Iowa only to participate in debates.

‘‘I’m not going to pander,’’ Huntsman said. ‘‘I’m not going to contort myself into a pretzel. You know what else? I’m not going to show up at a Donald Trump debate.’’

The next debate will be held in New Hampshire on Jan. 7.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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