Gingrich aims to cement lead at Republican debate

CHICAGO - All guns will be aimed at former House speaker Newt Gingrich as he works to cement his lead for the Republican presidential nomination at a debate in the key first voting state of Iowa on Saturday.

Main rival Mitt Romney, trying to regain his frontrunner status, is expected to take his gloves off and attack Gingrich's conservative credentials while trying to position himself as the more reliable candidate.

Conservative darlings Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann may take even sharper jabs as they try to boost their trailing poll numbers by winning over evangelicals put off by Gingrich's personal baggage of adultery and divorce.

"This debate is going to be probably the most important of the debates so far," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

"We now suddenly have a frontrunner in Newt Gingrich who is seriously ahead and unless his momentum is slowed down, the whole dynamic from Iowa onward is going to change."

Gingrich, who has tried to position himself as the party's elder statesman and urged his rivals in past debates to stay positive, will have to maintain his cool and avoid gaffes that could torpedo his campaign.

The debate comes just three weeks before Iowa holds the party's first nominating event on January 3.

The largely rural midwestern state barely figures in the general election, but has become key in the nominating races.

Given up as politically dead months ago, Gingrich surged to the front of the pack in recent weeks as early contenders Perry and Herman Cain saw their support collapse amidst big blunders and sex scandals.

"It's the debates that really saved his campaign," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

"He was able to hang in there while these other candidates surged and faded."

Polls this week show Gingrich with a significant lead over Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who had been seen as the party's best chance of beating President Barack Obama in 2012 despite the fact that he was unable to win over the party's conservative base.

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