DES MOINES – After some toe-to-toe battles on an Iowa debate stage, Republican presidential contenders were expected to take their fight to the trenches in hopes to capturing crucial support heading into the state’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses Jan. 3.
“My guess would be that from now on it’s trench warfare,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.
The candidates have a face-to-face debate in Sioux City this week and are spending more time criss-crossing the state in the campaign’s closing weeks.
“It’s make or break time,” said Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa GOP leader who is backing Santorum. “If you don’t have any traction by next Thursday, you’re not going to get it, and if you have traction by next Thursday, there’s no stopping you.
“I really believe that in the next six or seven days the race will take the shape of the results that we’ll see on Jan. 3,” Laudner added. “By the time you get to Friday, Dec. 23, it’s probably in the bank.”
Matt Strawn, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said the sprint to the finish line began Sunday and he believes “they are not going to be bashful about aggressively prosecuting their arguments.”
The GOP chairman said his party’s six 2012 presidential contenders engaged in a “spirited, respectful” and at times aggressive 90-minute debate at Drake University Saturday evening where they made their “closing arguments” to voters by trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors on health care, economic policy and a number of other issues.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the target of most of the barbs given his newly elevated position as front runner after Herman Cain dropped out of the GOP presidential sweepstakes. However, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also took his share of attacks from a field that includes U.S. Reps. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“Gingrich is a pretty tough nut to crack. Maybe it’s because he’s so brazen about things,” said Goldford. “Nobody knocked him off his perch, so in that way I think he was a slight winner. I think the fact that at least the first that he was in the dunk tank, no one hit the bull’s eye.
“Bachmann had some well-rehearsed lines, although when she went after Gingrich, he just put her down flat saying you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he added.
Gingrich and Romney took shots at each other’s positions on a number of issues, while Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said she is the proven conservative to go up against President Obama next November — “not Newt Romney.”
Romney said he differed with Gingrich on easing capital gain tax burdens, on spending federal money for a lunar colony to mine minerals from the moon and his record as a private-sector job creator versus the former speaker’s record as a career politician.
Gingrich said his capital gains cut is a better plan, he defended his support for the U.S. space program and he told Romney “let’s be candid, the only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994. You’d be a career politician by now if you would have won.”
Bachmann and Perry took shots at Romney and Gingrich for supporting an individual health care mandate similar to a federal overhaul pushed by Obama. Perry contended Romney went so far as to revise a book he wrote to change his position on the federal mandate – a claim Romney challenged and wanted to back it up with a $10,000 bet.
“I’m not into betting, my friend,” Perry said. “It’s in the book.”
“I have the book,” Romney shot back.
After the debate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom likened to an argument that people have where one person backs up a position he feels strongly about with a financial wager.
“When Mitt Romney made that bet, he did so knowing that Rick Perry wouldn’t take it and by backing down, Rick Perry looked weak,” Fehrstrom said. “It was a very revealing moment and not a good one for Rick Perry.”
Gingrich’s marital past became a focal point in Saturday’s debate, with Gingrich saying character “is a real issue.” He said he has admitted past mistakes and has found that voters are supportive of his candidacy because he has “a record of real change.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said infidelity should not be “a disqualifier, but it’s a factor and it should be a factor.” He said he has constantly heard from Iowans that trust is an important component when they decide who should lead the nation.
Perry said he considered a marriage vow to be a covenant with God, adding: “When I make a vow to God, I would tell you that’s stronger than a handshake in Texas. I think that issue of fidelity is important. If you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner or why wouldn’t you cheat on anybody for that matter?”
Paul said character is not something a political candidate should have to talk about, “it should show through.” He said the bigger issue is how seriously elected officials take the oath of office, noting “I end up off voting by myself” in trying to shrink government and keep America from being the world’s “policeman” by engaging in undeclared military actions.
“I think tonight you saw a lot of problems with the front-running candidates of this race,” Santorum told reporters after the debate.
“This race is about Barack Obama, not the Republican nominee,” he added. “A lot of people are still uncertain and they’re looking for someone they can trust.”