By SHUSHANNAH WALSHE (@shushwalshe) , DEVIN DWYER (@devindwyer) and MICHAEL FALCONE (@michaelpfalcone)
DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 10, 2011 ( ABCNEWS.com )
Less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, six Republican presidential candidates faced off tonight in a high-stakes presidential debate dominated by the question of who's the most consistent conservative.
The debate, sponsored by ABC News, Yahoo! News, WOI-TV, The Des Moines Register and the Iowa Republican Party at Drake University in Des Moines, comes 24 days before the first GOP voters will reveal their preference for presidential nominee on Jan. 3.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wasted little time going after frontrunner and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, accusing him of being a "career politician" with unusual -- at times liberal -- ideas.
"Speaker Gingrich and I have a lot of places where we disagree," Romney said. "We can start with his idea...to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon...He said that he would like to eliminate in some cases the child labor laws so that kids could clean schools... His plan in capital gains, to remove capital gains for people at the very highest level of income ..."
"But our real difference, I believe, is our backgrounds I spent my life in the private sector," Romney said, before turning to blast Gingrich as a Washington insider.
"The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," Gingrich replied, going on to offer a robust defense of his agenda.
But Romney didn't back down.
"If I had been able to get in the NFL as a kid, I would have been a football star too. But I spent my life in the private sector. We don't need folks who are lifetime Washington people to get this country out of the mess it's in -- we need people outside Washington, outside K street," he said, jabbing at Gingrich's experience.
Paul also took a jab at Gingrich.
"He's been on so many positions on so many issues," he said, noting Gingrich's support for an single-payer health care system, TARP funds and even accepting money from Freddie Mac, a government agency. "You might have a little bit of trouble competing with me on consistency."
Michele Bachman also piled on Gingrich, attempting to paint him as a Washington insider by asserting that his office was located on "the Rodeo Drive of Washington D.C., K Street" -- a street lined lobbyists' offices.
Then she created a stir by introducing a new tag line for her rivals, lumping them all together as "Newt Romney" for their support of an individual health care mandate, cap and trade and illegal immigration.
Gingrich immediately countered by saying Bachmann's comments were "simply untrue."
"I fought against 'Obamacare' every step of the way. I think it's important for you -- and this is a fair game. It's important for to you be accurate when you say those things. I did no lobbying," Gingrich told Bachmann.
But, the congresswoman wasn't having it, coming back with another attack.
"This is such an important issue. We have one shot. Do we honestly believe two men who stood on this stage and defended 'Romneycare' and an individual mandate. Are they honestly going to get rid of it in 2012?" Bachmann said. "It's going to be a very heavy lift."
The debate -- the 12th for the Republican candidates this year -- comes at a crucial moment, as Gingrich continues a dramatic surge in the polls and ousted frontrunner Romney and his allies launch scathing attacks from all sides.
Gingrich leads the pack with 33 percent support among likely caucus goers in Iowa, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. Romney and Paul are trailing in Iowa at 18 percent each.
The former House speaker also holds impressive leads in two other key early states -- South Carolina and Florida -- with 23 percent support among likely GOP primary voters, according to the most recent CNN-Time magazine polls.
He is also positioned well in hypothetical 2012 match-ups with President Obama in swing states Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, new Quinnipiac University polls found.