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Gingrich holds nerve in debate to remain man of the moment

Rivals turn on the new front-runner, but it's Romney who fumbles with casual $10,000 bet

For now, the Newt Gingrich bandwagon rolls on. The former Speaker of the House enhanced his standing in the race for the Republican presidential nomination at the weekend, emerging virtually unscathed from his first debate since assuming the mantle of frontrunner.

In Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday Mr Gingrich spent two hours parrying assaults on his character, marital fidelity, political consistency, business career, and foreign policy credentials, as rivals attempted to find a productive line of attack for the days and weeks ahead.

The fact that he managed to roll with the punches leaves other candidates with a growing headache this late in the political calendar. There are just 22 days until the Iowa Caucuses, and Mr Gingrich now has a clear lead in every early-voting state except New Hampshire.

Thus far, the GOP race has resembled a game of musical chairs, with first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and more recently Herman Cain enjoying spells as the most talked-about alternative to Mitt Romney, the longstanding favourite who has nonetheless failed to increase his support above a lukewarm 28 per cent in the polls. But their support has tended to collapse under scrutiny.

By contrast, Mr Gingrich was a case-study in steadiness. He dealt calmly with criticisms of his private life, acknowledging that he has "made mistakes" in past marital infidelities and saying he is changed from the errant husband who famously cheated on not one, but two ex-spouses.

"I've had to go to God for forgiveness," Mr Gingrich said, stressing his conversion to Catholicism and suggesting that his days of sexual adventure were past, adding: "I am a 68-year-old grandfather."

On the foreign policy front, Mr Gingrich doubled down on controversial comments he gave to a Jewish television station last week, in which he claimed that the Palestinians were an "invented people" and described them as "terrorists".

"I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan," he said on Saturday. "I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid."

It was a notably poor night for Mr Romney, as Mr Gingrich turned around an attack on his alleged status as a "career politician", pointing out that Mr Romney had spent most of the past 20 years seeking high office, but had consistently failed to win high-profile elections. "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is, you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," he said.

At one point Mr Romney committed what pundits called an unforced error by seeking to casually strike a $10,000 bet with the Texas Governor Rick Perry over a disputed point of fact regarding healthcare.

The size of the proposed wager – about £6,300 – served only to highlight the vast wealth Romney has made in the venture capital industry, which critics say leaves him out of touch; Democrat strategists were quick to seize on the remark, pointing out on Twitter that $10,000 was almost three times what the average American spent on groceries each year.

Perhaps the only real blow against Mr Gingrich came via Michele Bachmann, who claimed that Mr Gingrich and Mr Romney shared centrist positions on an array of topics, and dubbed them "Newt Romney".

That nickname, which amused many in the audience, seems likely to be given another airing at the next debate, on Thursday in Iowa.

In the meantime, one person who will be cheering Mr Gingrich's rise is Barack Obama. A new NBC poll suggests he would narrowly lose the key states of Florida and Pennsylvania to Mr Romney next November, but would beat Mr Gingrich handily.