On the eve of a major debate among the Republican presidential candidates, perceived front-runner Newt Gingrich is getting flak from his foes. During a stop in Cedar Rapids this morning, competitor Mitt Romney mostly steered clear of direct criticism of Gingrich, leaving that work to his supporters and attack ads.

But this afternoon during a meeting with The Des Moines Register editorial board, Romney was asked to outline the differences between himself and Gingrich.

“I like my ideas better, all right?” Romney said, laughing. “And on some issues he and I disagree and I like my position better than his position.” 

Romney suggested voters are looking for a steady leader, and Romney cited his executive work in the business world, his work in turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics and his work as governor of Massachusetts.

“I’ve had that leadership experience. I’ve also spent my life in the private sector,” Romney said this afternoon. “Speaker Gingrich has spent his life the last — I don’t know — 30 or 40 years in Washington. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just different.” 

Romney told The Register’s editors Americans like presidents who exhibit “sobriety, wisdom and judgement” and who are “trusted” by others.

“I understand how the economy works at the level of job-creators,” Romney said. “I think that’s a distinctive factor that’s important.”

Romney got rather specific, citing some of the proposals Gingrich has made which he opposes, like adjusting child labor laws so poor students can work as janitors in their schools or colonizing the moon to mine for the rare materials up there.

“He even talked about a series of mirrors that we could put in space that would light our highways at night,” Romney said. “I’ve got some better ideas for our resources, so you know we have differences on issues and ideas.”

Romney suggested he and Gingrich followed “very different paths” in life. “I respect the speaker as a very bright and capable guy,” Romney said. “But we’re very different people.”

Gingrich isn’t in Iowa today. He was scheduled to be in Washington, D.C. for a late afternoon book-signing. His chief supporter in Iowa spoke with reporters in a telephone conference call this afternoon and called the criticism from Romney and his supporters a “load of crap.”

This afternoon Michele Bachmann added her voice to the chorus criticizing Gingrich for his past support of the main tenet of health care reform — that Americans buy health insurance.

“Even as recently as May of this year, Newt Gingrich also said that he believed all Americans should be forced to have to purchase (a) health insurance policy,” Bachmann said.

Bachmann suggested the idea of a health insurance mandate came from people like Gingrich.

“I’m not here to speak ill of any of the candidates in the race, but just for the sake of the history of this issue I’m telling you this: in 1993 another Republican, Newt Gingrich, got behind this idea of forcing all Americans to buy health insurance,” Bachmann told a crowd in Des Moines this afternoon. “And he said, ‘I am for people having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.'”

Bachmann also cited statistics from Massachusetts, indicating the health care reform plan Mitt Romney signed into law as governor there has led to increased waiting times for doctor’s visits and increased health insurance premium costs for the residents of Massachusetts. 

“This is what we need to know. It isn’t as though we were blind, not knowing what these policies would mean in the future. We had Massachusetts to look at. We knew that the American people rejected this in the 1990s,” Bachmann said. “The average wait time, now, in Massachusetts with an internist in Massachusetts is 48 days.”

Bachmann made her comments at Nationwide Insurance in Des Moines, where about 300 employees gathered for a “town hall” style forum with the candidate. 

Tomorrow night’s candidate debate will be held at Drake University. It starts at eight o’clock and will be broadcast nationally on ABC.