SIOUX CITY — There was a war of words over going to war and a Texas governor comparing himself to a Denver quarterback, but the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination mostly kept the aim locked on President Barack Obama last night.
The electoral stakes couldn’t have been higher going into the debate — the last one before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Moderator and Fox News journalist Bret Baier called it “closing arguments” for the candidates. The debate was sponsored by Fox News and the Iowa Republican Party.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came into the debate leading in the national polls and most Iowa polls, while his closest opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is leading in New Hampshire.
Gingrich’s status as front-runner had pundits figuring that the former speaker would be the target of the other candidates, but he turned out to be a bigger target for the Fox moderators, who baited him with statements from other candidates. Gingrich didn’t bite and responded, for the most part.
Romney, meanwhile, didn’t show the combativeness he did in last weekend’s debate when he offered a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Given the chance to go after Gingrich, Romney chose to go after Obama on national security and, particularly, the economy.
“I want to take a step back and talk about what’s happening in the country,” Romney said when asked to talk about Gingrich’s electability. “I spent my life in the private sector. I have credibility on the economy when (Obama) doesn’t.”
One of the most heated exchanges of the night came when the question of how the candidates would react to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said he did not support sanctions and called much of the talk about the spy plane that the Iranians have downed “war propaganda.”
“I have never heard a more dangerous answer,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota responded. The two then spent several minutes going back and forth.
The congresswoman and Waterloo native has spent more time in Iowa than most candidates and begins a 99-county tour of the state today.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, wrapped up his 99-county tour earlier this week and claims to have participated in 350 town hall meetings throughout the state.
He, like Bachmann, is angling for the votes of Iowa’s social conservatives who find Romney and Gingrich too moderate.
The two are joined by Perry, whose campaign adds have recently taken a sharp right turn. His television ads have gone after gays in the military, Washington “insiders,” and what he calls President Barack “Obama’s war on religion.”
Perry was the one who compared himself to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, saying he hoped to be the Tim Tebow of the caucuses, in reference to Tebow’s ability to prove doubters wrong.
The debate also featured former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has not campaigned in Iowa. He called himself the consistent conservative and the answers to his questions seemed to be more aimed at introducing his campaign themes — he said Americans need to restore trust — to an audience that doesn’t know him, than responding to what the other candidates said.