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Newt Gingrich fights to hold Iowa lead amid ‘no negativity’ pledge at Fox debate

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Gingrich (Eric Gay/Pool via AP)

Newt Gingrich put himself in a difficult position ahead of Thursday night's Fox News debate in Sioux City, Iowa: He sought to adhere to his pledge not to go negative against his Republican presidential opponents while still holding his lead in the Iowa polls.

And the former House Speaker appeared to successfully straddle the balance, even as he seemed to be on the defensive from attacks lobbed by Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and other GOP rivals.

Gingrich passed over multiple opportunities to attack his opponents as he fielded criticism for receiving payouts from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, accused of working as a lobbyist, and challenged over his electability and on the issues of abortion and immigration and instead issued measured, thoughtful defenses.

But Gingrich still found a way to display his aggressive side.

"The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial," Gingrich said during a long and heated criticism of the federal judiciary in which he called the Supreme Court justices "arrogant" and "far too powerful." "We do not have a judicial dictatorship in this country," Gingrich said.

Later in the debate, Gingrich addressed his pledge in a backhanded manner, saying, "I sometimes get accused of using language that's too strong, so I've been standing here editing." The comment drew laughter from an audience well aware of Gingrich's "no negative" vow.

But then Gingrich turned around and launched into a full assault on President Obama for his decision to defer plans for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline connecting Canada to Texas:

The president of the United States cannot figure out that it is--I'm using mild words here--utterly irrational to say 'I'm now going to veto a middle-class tax cut to protect left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco so that we're going to kill American jobs, weaken American energy, make us more vulnerable to the Iranians and do so in a way that makes no sense to any normal, rational American.

Gingrich's comment drew applause and cheers from the live audience in Iowa, where he continues to lead in recent polling ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses.

The forceful language Gingrich exhibited Thursday night was a reminder of why he's recently moved from also-ran to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential race.

That status has also made Gingrich a target of multiple attacks. This week alone, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney began sending mailers to Iowans linking Gingrich with liberal lawmaker Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader from San Francisco. Texas Rep. Ron Paul on Thursday questioned Gingrich's draft deferments and has joined with other critics to accuse Gingrich of being corrupt, in part, for receiving payments from mortgage lending giant Freddie Mac.

Gingrich's connections to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac emerged during Thursday night's debate, and Gingrich tried to hold firm without going on the offensive. "I was a private citizen engaged in a business like any other business," Gingrich said, noting he was no longer a lawmaker during his involvement. Both Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann--who is heavily courting the Iowa vote--attacked Gingrich on his Fannie and Freddie connections. You can see Gingrich defending Freddie Mac, and other "government-sponsored enterprises," in the video below:

Bachmann spent much of Thursday night attempting to diminish Gingrich's stature. She accused him of being a lobbyist--a charge that Gingrich, who has done a good deal of political consulting work in his career as a private citizen, vigorously disputes while continuing to play up his Fannie and Freddie connections. She also hit out at Gingrich for supporting candidates who don't reject partial birth abortions.

But Gingrich didn't retaliate. "Sometimes, Congresswoman Bachmann doesn't get her facts correct," Gingrich calmly replied and defended his "pro-life" record. "I think my position on life actually has been very clear and very consistent."

Gingrich also defended himself on immigration, after he's drawn persistent criticism for allegedly backing amnesty in the wake of immigration comments he made at a Nov. 22 debate. Gingrich glanced down at his podium, presumably at his notes, as he issued a three-point defense of his immigration position, highlighting his desire to cut federal aid to "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants.

Polls show Gingrich's strong Iowa lead slipping in recent weeks as rival campaigns stepped up their negative messaging strategies. He is one of several ccandidates who have prioritized Iowa as their key to winning momentum in the 2012 race.

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