Weeks before Republicans begin voting for their candidate for 2012, the latest debate has hardened the race’s surprising big trend – Mitt Romney is starting to struggle, while Newt Gingrich, the new frontrunner, is consolidating his lead.

Mr Gingrich has in recent days been assailed by the Romney campaign and a wave of former colleagues who served with him in Congress and attacked over a characteristic incendiary remark, that the Palestinians were an “invented” people.

But in Saturday evening’s debate in Iowa, where Republicans will cast their first vote of the contest in the state’s caucus on January 3, Mr Gingrich rebuffed a series of attacks and confidently repeated his controversial Palestinian comments.

Mr Romney, by contrast, provided the evening’s signature negative moment, offering Rick Perry, the Texas governor, a bet of $10,000 over health policy, a wager of such magnitude that his opponents used it to highlight his wealth and disconnectedness from ordinary Americans.

“I would suggest that $10,000 is just bucket change for [Mr Romney],” Mr Perry said on Sunday, while campaigning in Ames.

Mr Romney is the richest candidate in the race, with a personal fortune estimated at about $200m, earned during his time as a private equity executive.

Mr Romney has a well-funded and organised campaign and has been effective and disciplined in the debates but he suddenly finds himself nearly matched by Mr Gingrich even in states such as New Hampshire, where he had a gaping lead.

With Mr Gingrich standing by his side on the podium at Drake University in Des Moines, Mr Romney promised that if elected president he would act with “sobriety, care and stability”, contrasting himself with his rival’s interjection on the Middle East.

Mr Gingrich’s spokesman had initially qualified the comments about Palestine. But the candidate was largely unrepentant when confronted in the debate, saying his statement was “factually and historically correct”.

“Someone should have the courage to tell the truth – these people [Palestinian leaders] are terrorists and they teach terrorism in their schools,” he said.

After the other candidates had asserted the importance of character and fidelity, the thrice-betrothed Mr Gingrich was forced to reiterate he had made “mistakes” in his personal life and had had “to go to God for forgiveness”.

Earlier, Rick Perry, the Texas governor, had said: “If you will cheat on your wife, you will cheat on your business partner or anybody else for that matter.”

Mr Gingrich has yet to be genuinely tested as the frontrunner but, so far, the heavy personal and political baggage he carries from his long career has not dragged him down.

All of Mr Gingrich’s negatives might be “baked into the cake as far as Republican primary voters are concerned”, Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman, told CNN.

Mr Romney, by contrast, momentarily hesitated when asked on which issues he disagreed from Mr Gingrich, before listing the former speaker’s plan to mine on the moon, revive child labour and abolish capital gains.

Once again, Mr Gingrich stood by his comments on children working, saying that kids from poorer families could replace janitors in schools to teach them the virtue of work.

“If you take one-half of the New York janitors who are unionised and paid more than the teachers – an entry-level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher – you could give lots of poor kids a work experience,” he said.

Mr Gingrich also produced one of the sharpest lines of the evening, responding to Mr Romney’s attacks on him as a creature of Washington and a career politician.

“The only reason you didn’t become a career politician,” he said, “’is you lost to Teddy Kennedy [in the Massachusetts Senate race] in 1994.”

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