GOP Candidates Avoid Harsh Exchanges In Final Debate Before Iowa Caucuses

The final Republican presidential primary debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses was a safe affair, sort of like two boxers hugging one another to let the final few seconds of a long bout run out.

The final Republican presidential primary debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses was a safe affair, sort of like two boxers hugging one another to let the final few seconds of a long bout run out. Photo: Drake University/Flickr

The seven contestants took some shots at one another, but were generally content to focus on their own message and move on to hitting the ground over the last three weeks before Iowans cast their votes.

Newt Gingrich is in a tight race with rivals Ron Paul and Mitt Romney in Iowa less than three weeks before the state’s Republicans decide on January 3 who they want as their presidential candidate. It is anybody’s guess at this stage as to who will win.

Gingrich’s main adversary was not former Massachusetts Governor Romney as anticipated, but instead it was Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who won Iowa’s straw poll of Republicans in August and would like to score a surprise victory here.

Gingrich was ripped Michele Bachmann for his role in advising the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which paid him roughly $1.6 million over the better part of a decade.

“The speaker had his hand out and he was taking $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington, D.C.,” Bachmann said. “That’s absolutely wrong.”

Gingrich appeared to hold his own at the debate and Romney might have missed a chance to follow up on attacks he has been making against the former speaker in the media all week.

“I’m very concerned about not appearing to be zany,” Gingrich said at one point, breezily making reference to a criticism of him this week by Romney.

A Reuters/Ipsos national poll this week shows Gingrich holds a 10-point lead, but that he would fare worse than Romney against President Barack Obama at next November’s election.

Gingrich defended his work as that of “a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business.”

Gingrich tried to stay positive, at one point even complimenting Romney for his proposal on Medicare. But earlier in the day, Gingrich tried to use Romney’s attacks against him. At a campaign stop in Fort Dodge, Gingrich told a few hundred Iowans that while he is “someone who is trying to help the country,” the candidate attacking him is “someone who is just running a negative campaign.”

A negative campaign, Gingrich said, “will just get people disgusted.”

“I think a lot of the modern political system is frankly so negative and so destructive that it’s no wonder that people get disgusted with the process,” he said.

Romney, who has seen his frontrunner status stolen by Gingrich for the last two weeks, was more self-assured than he was in the Dec. 10 debate, and scored some very strong points and got lots of crowd applause with two lines in particular hitting President Obama.

“Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he’s president. It’s not if I’m president,” Romney said in response to a question about job creation.

And of Obama’s request to Iran that the country return a downed U.S. drone, Romney said: “A foreign policy based on pretty please? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Paul, who came into the debate with a head of steam and is challenging Gingrich for the lead in Iowa, stumbled in answering a question about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

He insisted there was no evidence to suggest Iran was attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and enrich uranium. A U.N. nuclear watchdog report last month said Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and that secret research to that end may be continuing.

“There has been no enrichment in Iran,” said Paul, an anti-war libertarian.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is hoping a 44-city bus tour of Iowa will allow him to rebound after a string of bad debates, compared himself to American football star quarterback Tim Tebow, who has managed to win a string of games for NFL’s Denver Broncos despite some obvious deficiencies.

“There are a lot of folks that said Tim Tebow wasn’t going to be a very good NFL quarterback. There are people that stood up and said, ‘Well, he doesn’t have the right throwing mechanisms, or he’s not playing the game right,’ ” Perry said.

“And he won two national championships, and that looked pretty good. We were the national champions in job creation back in Texas. And so, am I ready for the next level? Let me tell you, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.”

A Public Policy Polling survey in Iowa this week said Gingrich’s support had dropped several percentage points and he was leading Paul narrowly by 22 percent to 21 percent, with 16 percent for Romney and Michele Bachmann at 11 percent. [via Huffington Post, Reuters and Los Angeles Times]

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