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All eyes on Gingrich in last debate before caucus

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — All eyes on Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential contenders assembled in Iowa today for the last debate before the state’s leadoff nominating caucuses, now less than three weeks away.

The former House speaker, leading in national and state GOP polls, set the stage by pushing back against criticism from chief rival Mitt Romney and pledged in a new ad to be positive in the race.

Romney was expected to test Gingrich’s pledge in the debate as he works to stall the Iowa front-runner’s momentum.

Also participating in the debate were Texas Rep Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is not campaigning for the Iowa caucuses but has recently gained on Romney in next-up New Hampshire.

Gingrich, who seemed an also-ran in the earliest stages of the race, has emerged as a leader heading into the final stretch of the pre-primary campaign. His decades in Washington and his post-congressional career as a consultant have been the subjects of tough critiques from Romney’s campaign in the past week.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who has said he probably will not endorse a candidate before the caucuses, said Thursday that Gingrich needs to show he has discipline in the debate and in the next few weeks to convince GOP voters he has what it takes to be president.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Branstad said in an Associated Press interview when asked specifically if he thought Gingrich had the discipline to be president. “I think he’s a great idea person; I have a lot of respect for him. But whether he has the discipline and the focus, I don’t know.”

Branstad described the debate as critical for Gingrich to show poise, but he said the final days leading up to the Jan. 3 caucuses would be a bigger test.

“I think it’s volatile, that you could see big numbers switch,” he said. “External factors can have an impact, and how well the candidates handle them will matter.”

Romney has not begun running ads assailing Gingrich. But he has characterized the former speaker as “zany” for having endorsed mining the moon and lighting highways with mirrors in space.

Romney has increasingly looked to slow Gingrich in Iowa. Romney has campaigned lightly in the state, and some influential social conservatives there have doubts about his Mormon faith and changed positions on social issues.

In a new ad in Iowa, Romney is describing the need to reduce the federal deficit as a “moral responsibility.”