By Jonathan Easley - 12/11/11 05:21 AM EST
With less than a month before the first ballots are cast at the Iowa caucuses, the GOP field went after frontrunner Newt Gingrich at a debate in Des Moines on Saturday night.
The former House speaker knew the assault was coming - surrogates for other campaigns spent the last week attacking Gingrich as erratic and lacking the character needed to lead the party.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry hit Gingrich on a personal level over the character issue.
“I think that sends a very powerful message – if you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn’t you cheat on your business partner, or why wouldn’t you cheat on anybody for that matter.”
Gingrich is on his third marriage and has admitted to past infidelities, but says those days are behind him and that he repented when he joined the Catholic Church.
The former House Speaker sought to deflect the "fidelity" attacks by admitting his mistakes.
“I think it is a real issue, I think that people have to look at the person to whom they will loan the presidency, and I think they have the right to ask every single question,” he said.
“In my case, I’ve said out front openly – I’ve made mistakes at times, I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness, I’ve had to seek reconciliation. But I’m also a 68 year old grandfather, and people have to measure now whether I’m a person that they can trust.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney passed on attacking Gingrich over his marriages, although earlier this week his campaign released an ad touting his long relationship with his wife, which many interpreted as a veiled swipe at Gingrich.
The candidates also tried to paint Gingrich as erratic for his controversial remarks last week that the Palestinians are an “invented” people – remarks that Gingrich stood by at Saturday’s debate.
Romney said he didn’t disagree with the facts of what Gingrich said, but that Gingrich shouldn’t have thrown “incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot” because it makes life more difficult for the Israelis.
“That’s just stirring up trouble,” Rep. Ron Paul said. “To go out of our way to say that so and so is not a real people … this is how we get involved in so many messes.”
But Gingrich didn’t back down, and even doubled down by continuously blasting the Palestinians as “terrorists.”
“Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes,” Gingrich said. “We are in a situation where everyday rockets are fired into Israel while the United States – the current administration – tries to pressure the Israelis into a peace process.”
“Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth,” he continued. “These people are terrorists, they teach terrorism in their schools … it’s fundamentally the time for somebody to have the guts to say enough lying about the Middle East.”
On immigration, Gingrich has taken heat for his idea of a review board for illegal immigrants that have established lives in the U.S., potentially opening a path to citizenship for some.
Romney called the plan a “magnet that draws people into the country illegally.”
Gingrich again had to defend his ties to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, who paid him over $1.5 million for advice “as a historian.”
“I never did any lobbying for any agency. I was in the private sector,” Gingrich said with a glance at Romney, who has touted his private sector experience as a qualification to be president.
Bachmann, who referred to the two leading candidates as “Newt Romney,” also blasted Gingrich as a lobbyist, and repeated her line that Gingrich profited from working on K Street, which she called “the Rodeo Drive of Washington D.C.”
Gingrich largely skirted his past support of the individual healthcare mandate, although it was brought up that he supported the mandate as late as May of this year.
Still, the former House speaker never seemed flapped by the attacks. On the matter of his past divorces, the camera showed him listening intently as each candidate discussed what it meant about his character, before he was finally given the opportunity to respond.
Vicki Needham contributed.