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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. With Herman Cain out and John Huntsman's Iowa poll numbers ruled too low for him to participate, just six Republican presidential hopefuls met for a debate in Des Moines last night. And taking center stage, former U.S. speaker of the House and the latest front-runner Newt Gingrich. Most thought Gingrich and the other candidate topping the polls, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would square off. They did - and the jabs were got personal at times. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Des Moines.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For the first 20 minutes of this debate, the candidates took turns talking about lowering taxes slashing regulations - all pretty predictable topics - but then the event, moderated by ABC News anchors Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, took a sudden turn. Stephanopoulos asked the field about Gingrich's assertion that he is the candidate with the best chance of beating President Obama. Romney's first reaction was laughter.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you don't agree with that. Why?
FORMER GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: Well, of course I don't agree with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROMNEY: I don't think most people agree with that. Speaker Gingrich has been in government for a long time and we can look at his record, we can look at my record.
GONYEA: Gingrich responded noting that Romney's own claim to not being a career politician rings hollow.
NEWT GINGRICH: Let's be candid. The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROMNEY: Wait a second. Now, wait a second, that's...now, wait a second. I mean...
GONYEA: And so it went for many minutes. It seemed the rest of the candidates disappeared. Eventually, Congressman Ron Paul weighed in when he was asked about ads he's running attacking Gingrich's record and questioning the former speaker's conservative credentials and his consistency.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: Well, he's been on different positions, you know, on so many issues. You know, single payer, he's taken some positions that are not conservative. He supported the TARP funds.
GONYEA: And Congresswoman Michele Bachmann joined the fray, creating a new persona for the two men at center stage, calling them Newt Romney. The topic shifted to foreign policy, specifically Gingrich's controversial statement two days ago in which he called the Palestinians, quote, "an invented people." Mitt Romney last night called Gingrich's words incendiary and a mistake. Gingrich stood his ground.
GINGRICH: Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say if there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?
GONYEA: Romney said such talk did Israel little good.
ROMNEY: And therefore, before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do? Let's work together because we're partners. I'm not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.
GONYEA: While much of the focus last night was on the Romney-Gingrich battle, Romney's most memorable line of the night came at the goading of Texas Governor Rick Perry who accused Romney of promoting a federal health care mandate, something Romney says is not true. Romney pressed his case
ROMNEY: You know what? You've raised that before, Rick. And you're simply wrong.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: It was true then. It's true now.
ROMNEY: Rick, I'll tell you what: 10,000 bucks...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
ROMNEY: $10,000 bet?
PERRY: I'm not in the betting business, but, OK.
ROMNEY: Oh, OK.
GONYEA: Perry did not take the bet. It was an awkward moment, especially given Romney's position as the wealthiest of the candidates on stage. And because Romney has often been criticized as being far removed from regular voters. But regular voters will get a chance to measure how near or far they feel to these candidates again on Thursday in another debate before Iowa holds its caucuses January third. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.
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