By Jason Clayworth (AFP)
DES MOINES, Iowa — White House hopeful Newt Gingrich took the gloves off Saturday as he defended his frontrunner status in a feisty debate among the narrowing field of Republican presidential contenders.
Faced with a barrage of attacks on his conservative credentials, history of adultery and controversial remarks calling Palestinians an "invented" people, the former House speaker played tough and kept his cool as he stood his ground.
Slammed by his rivals for "stirring up trouble," Gingrich insisted that "the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story," adding: "These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools."
"I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth," Gingrich said. "Just as it was when (Ronald) Reagan went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire."
Gingrich was also not afraid to launch a biting personal attack after main rival Mitt Romney called him a "career politician" and Washington insider who does not know what it takes to fix the sputtering US economy.
"I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works," Romney said before ridiculing Gingrich for supporting mining missions on the moon and changing child labor laws so kids can work as janitors at school.
Gingrich shot back at the former Massachusetts governor: "Let's be candid. The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to (former senator) Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
Romney suffered a self-inflicted blow later in the debate when he challenged Texas Governor Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet over what Romney wrote about health care.
President Barack Obama's Democrats were quick to fire a salvo at the multi-millionaire, noting that $10,000 is more than four months' pay for most Americans and enough to cover more than a year's worth of mortgage payments on a typical home.
"He's going to own that $10,000 bet line. Nothing else he has said in this debate matters," tweeted Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
The debate comes just three weeks before Iowa holds the party's first nominating event on January 3 to pick who will challenge Obama in November 2012....