SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Acting on their best behavior, two Republican front-runners called an effective cease-fire Thursday night in their fratricidal primary fight, using the last presidential debate of the year mainly to assail President Barack Obama.
A few heated exchanges marked the two-hour debate but they were largely spurred by those struggling to catch up to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in opinion polls.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose hopes may live or die in Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses, continued to assail Gingrich for his work for Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage guarantor he has criticized for contributing to the housing crisis.
Although Gingrich adamantly insists he did not lobby, Bachmann said the fact he was paid more than $1.6 million for consulting was proof of his influence peddling and hypocrisy.
Gingrich accused Bachmann of making “wild accusations” and said, despite his past ties, he continued to favor the elimination of Freddie Mac.
Bachmann also engaged in a testy back-and-forth with Texas Rep. Ron Paul over his strenuous opposition to U.S. military engagement abroad. She accused Paul of espousing a “dangerous” position on restraining Iran’s nuclear program, noting Iran’s stated threat to “wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map.”
Paul, his voice rising, said he “obviously” does not want Iran to become a nuclear power, but he said that to “declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims” is “dangerous talk.”
“Why do we have to bomb so many countries?” asked Paul, whose potent Iowa organization has made him a strong contender to win Iowa. “The danger is overreacting. …You cannot solve these problems with war.”
Those moments struck the most sparks in a session that was comparatively mild after a series of face-to-face meetings in which the candidates increasingly escalated their attacks on one another.
The close-quarters session was the 13th debate of the campaign. Romney and Gingrich were front and center; their staging reflected the candidates’ standing in the polls ahead of the event.
But despite pointed questions designed to draw the two into verbal battle, they turned away each opportunity for direct confrontation.
Romney was asked about Gingrich’s accusation earlier this week that he had destroyed jobs in his quest to gain wealth through his consulting work taking over and restructuring corporations.
The former Massachusetts governor said he welcomed the attack, because he anticipated a similar assault from Obama, should he become the nominee. He said some of his takeovers cost workers, but in the aggregate his efforts ended up creating “tens of thousands of jobs.”
“I’ve learned the lesson of how this economy works,” Romney said. “The president does not know how the economy works.”
Gingrich leads in surveys of Republican voters – nationally as well as here in Iowa – though his popularity has slipped in some recent polling. He has been pounded over the Iowa airwaves for the past week in ads placed by Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Romney’s allies.
The spots – inescapable for anyone watching Iowa television, morning or night – portray the former House speaker as unethical and politically untrustworthy.
Perry, turning in his best performance after a series of poor debate appearances, was asked about the fears some Republicans express about the prospect of him facing Obama on stage in the general election.
“I want to share something with you: at each one of these debates, I’m kinda getting where I like these debates,” Perry said. “As a matter of fact, I hope Obama and I debate a lot. And I’ll get there early and we’ll get it on, and we will talk about our differences.”
Mindful of his underdog role, he compared himself to the Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow, he of the fourth-quarter heroics, noting that many doubted his ability to be a successful NFL quarterback despite a sterling college career.
“Let me tell you,” Perry said. “I hope to be the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.”