Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are headed in different directions during a break in the CNN GOP National Security debate in Washington on Nov. 22.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney disagree on ways to address judicial power. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

DES MOINES, Iowa | Sat Dec 10, 2011 10:09pm EST

(Reuters) - Surging front-runner Newt Gingrich came under heavy fire in a presidential debate in Iowa on Saturday from Republican rivals who portrayed him as a Washington insider who profited from his contacts at taxpayer expense.

Hoping to halt his quick rise in the polls, the Republican contenders led by Mitt Romney described Gingrich as a member of the Washington establishment who took $1.6 million from housing giant Freddie Mac.

U.S. representatives Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul criticized Gingrich as a hypocrite who profited from his contacts and wound up taking taxpayer money when Freddie Mac was bailed out by the federal government.

When you're taking money to influence the outcome of legislation, that's the epitome of establishment, Bachmann said.

Gingrich said he did not lobby for the housing giant but offered strategic advice.

Romney, once the presumed nominee, said his business experience made him more electable than a politician like Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker.

The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994, Gingrich shot back at Romney, who lost a Senate bid in Massachusetts that year but later became governor. It's a bit much, you'd have been a 17-year career politician now if you'd won.

It was the first debate since Gingrich roared past Romney to take a big lead in polls in the Republican battle to pick a 2012 challenger to President Barack Obama.

Romney has responded on the campaign trail by cranking up his criticism of Gingrich's record and drawing contrasts between his own background as a businessman and Gingrich's experience in Washington.

Gingrich has rarely been a target in previous debates and has refrained from attacking his fellow Republicans but that changed with time drawing short before the voting starts.

Romney also took heat from his rivals for his health care overhaul in Massachusetts, which became a precursor for Obama's health care makeover.

Pressed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, Romney offered to bet him $10,000 he did not support an individual health care mandate during the debate on the state plan. Perry said he was not a betting man and refused to take it.

With only six candidates participating, each had more time to talk. Businessman Herman Cain withdrew from the race a week ago after charges he had a 13-year extramarital affair, and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will not participate.

The race has seen a series of Republican White House contenders rising to the top of the pack, only to fall back in popularity after campaign missteps.

The two debates this week could play a role in determining whether Gingrich follows in their footsteps.

(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; editing by Todd Eastham)