Gingrich comes to debate with front-runner status

By KASIE HUNT | December 10, 2011 | 3:26 AM EST

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Newt Gingrich is facing his first debate as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Standing next to him will be Mitt Romney, whose campaign has launched an all-out offensive against Gingrich's record and leadership style.

Nearly all the major candidates for the GOP nomination are set to appear at the debate in Des Moines, Iowa, at 9 p.m. EST Saturday. The former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, is skipping the debate on the federal budget deficit to campaign in New Hampshire.

Less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich has emerged as Romney's chief rival for the nomination.

Aides to Gingrich say the former speaker expects his new standing in the race to mean his rivals will criticize him head-on in their latest debate.