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Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said Mr. Gingrich “stretched” the truth when he said that he helped balanced the budget for four years. “The national debt during those four years actually went up about a trillion dollars,” Mr. Paul said, referring to bookkeeping methods that include Social Security.

Both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney chided Mr. Gingrich for promising too many costly things in too many states — including his support of a lunar base, which he suggested this week could apply for statehood if the American population living there reaches 13,000.

“We run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now,” Mr. Santorum said. “We’re borrowing 40 cents of every dollar, and to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that’s a great thing to maybe get votes, but it’s not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to how to grow them.”

Mr. Romney had a similar take. “I spent 25 years in business,” he said. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’”

The two front-runners also sparred over Mr. Romney’s newly released tax returns — which Mr. Gingrich said earlier in the day proved that Republicans could not beat President Obama with “some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island bank account, owns shares of Goldman Sachs.”

“Have you checked your investments?” Mr. Romney asked Mr. Gingrich, before going on to point out that the former speaker had mutual funds that invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

He also attacked Mr. Gingrich for using his influence to help Freddie Mac, saying America needed “a whistle-blower, not a horn tooter.”

Mr. Santorum denounced the spat as “petty personal politics” and told CNN that “you guys should leave that alone” and ask questions about issues. Mr. Romney is, he said, “a wealthy guy because he worked hard” and Mr. Gingrich made money by advising companies after leaving government, which he called “not the worst thing in the world.”

Mr. Gingrich says he believe candidates’ wealth should be a non-issue and called it a “nonsense question,” but says he must defend himself from attacks.

The public grilling of Mr. Gingrich coincided with an increasing backlash against him from powerful Republicans from his past, who came out of the woodwork to warn that his ideas rarely came to fruition, that he wore out his welcome during his tenure as speaker and that he became a political liability.

Labeling him an “erratic” and “undisciplined” lawmaker, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he was a Clinton-like fraud and “not really a conservative.”

Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state under President Reagan, chided Mr. Gingrich’s effort to wrap himself in the mantle of Reagan are “misleading at best” — pointing out that he “often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat communism.”

The 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, wrote Thursday that Mr. Gingrich was a drag on his bid for the White House and cost the party seats in the House elections that year. Mr. Dole said Mr. Gingrich would do the same this year if he represents the party atop the ticket in the November election.

“Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him, and that fact speaks for itself,” said Mr. Dole, who was Senate Republican leader at the time and dealt with Mr. Gingrich regularly. “He was a one-man band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway.”

Polls released this week suggested the mounting criticism is starting to weigh down Mr. Gingrich, which has helped Mr. Romney recapture the lead here that he briefly lost after the South Carolina primary on Saturday.

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