DES MOINES, Iowa (TheStreet) -- Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich fended off attacks from his rivals Saturday night in a campaign debate in Iowa.The debate was the first since the former House speaker rose to the top of the Republican field in both national and Iowa polls, the Associated Press reported. Iowa is the current focus for the GOP candidates, because the state's caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 3, will kick off the Republican primary season. Gingrich defended past statements and positions in all but one area where his rivals criticized him: his personal life. The twice-divorced Gingrich, who has admitted to marital infidelity, said, it was legitimate for voters to examine such, matters, the AP reported. "I said upfront, openly, I've made mistakes at times," Gingrich was quoted saying. "I've had to go to God for forgiveness." > > Bull or Bear? Vote in Our Poll On other issues, however, Gingrich stood firm. Romney said it was a mistake for the former House speaker to recently describe Palestinians as an "invented" people. That description appears to diminish the Palestinians' claim to have a state of their own and also is contrary to a two-state solution for Israel. "We're going to tell the truth, but we're not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot when our friends, the Israelis, would probably say, `What in the world are you doing?'" Romney was quoted saying by the AP. But Gingrich backed his past description, replying, "I feel quite confident an amazing number of Israelis found it nice to have an American tell the truth," the AP added. On the issue of health care, other candidates lashed out at both Romney and Gingrich as not being conservative enough because they had backed mandates for people to have health insurance. Referring to the two candidates as "Newt Romney," Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said they wouldn't be able to deliver an effective challenge to President Obama on health care. A key feature of the health care reform legislation passed last year was mandated health insurance. The mandate was also central to health care legislation Romney had backed when he was governor of Massachusetts.
In Saturday's debate, Gingrich said that when he embraced mandated insurance in 1993, it was as an alternative to the health care reform being pushed by then President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. "In 1993, in fighting HillaryCare, virtually every conservative saw the mandate as a less-dangerous future than what Hillary was trying to do," Gingrich was quoted saying by the AP. "I frankly was floundering, trying to find a way to make sure that people who could afford it were paying their hospital bills, while still leaving an out so libertarians could not buy insurance," Gingrich said. "It's now clear that the mandate, I think, is clearly unconstitutional." All six debate participants agreed on one thing, saying that President Obama had mishandled the economy. Yet they were divided on legislation currently being debated in Congress on whether to extend a payroll tax cut into 2012. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Romney and Gingrich are in favor of the extension, while Bachmann, Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said they oppose it, the AP reported.