The Republican presidential candidates gathered in Sioux City tonight for the final televised debate before the Iowa Caucuses and the sometimes terse exchanges between some of the candidates offered a glimpse of the high-stakes battle for votes here.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are competing for the votes of undecided Iowa conservatives and each sent zingers toward rivals Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney — the three candidates leading in the polls.
“When Speaker Gingrich was speaker of the house, he had an opportunity to defund Planned Parenthood and he chose not to take it,” Bachmann said. “That’s a big issue.”
Gingrich shot back: “Sometimes Congresswoman Bachmann doesn’t get her facts very accurate. I had a 98.5 percent Right-to-Life voting record in 20 years.”
Bachmann didn’t back down: “I think it’s outrageous to say over and over through the debates that I don’t have my facts right when, as a matter of fact, I do.”
Bachmann also rapped Gingrich for campaigning for Republican candidates who support abortion rights.
“I don’t see how you’re going to govern the country if you’re going to run around and decide who to purge,” Gingrich said.
The two also had a testy exchange earlier in the debate when Bachmann accused Gingrich of “influence peddling” and Gingrich accused Bachmann of making “wild accusations.” Ron Paul rapped Gingrich on the same issue, over his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
Rick Santorum used his first minute of speaking time to offer a “contrast” between his record as a Pennsylvania senator and the Gingrich record.
“The speaker had a conservative revolution against him when he was the speaker of the house,” Santorum said. “I had conservatives knocking down my door because I was the effective advocate for the principles that they believed in.”
Santorum also accused Mitt Romney of failing to fight a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court which legalized gay marriage there, but unlike Gingrich, Romney merely called Santorum’s remark “a little unusual” and a “novel” interpretation of what happened in Massachusetts. Later, when asked about the jabs being thrown in the GOP race, Romney said all the candidates “can handle” the pressure.
“There’s nothing that’s been said by these folks on this stage about me that I’m not going to hear 100 times from President Obama,” Romney said. “He’s going to have, what, a billion dollars to go after me or whoever our nominee is.”
A long segment of the debate focused on foreign policy, on a nuclear Iran and specifically on Ron Paul’s anti-war stand.
“We ought to really sit back and think and not jump the gun and believe that we are going to be attacked,” Paul said. “That’s how we got into that useless war in Iraq and lost so much.”
Santorum called Iran’s leaders “radicals” and Bachmann called Paul’s views “dangerous” — but Paul didn’t back down.
“I don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I would like to reduce them because there would be less chance of war,” Paul said. “But to declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims and say all Muslims are the same. This is dangerous talk. Yeah, there are some radicals, but they don’t come here to kill us because we’re free and prosperous. Do they go to Switzerland and Sweden?”
Rick Perry’s most notable moments in the debate came when he joked about himself, like his rather rocky performances in some of the debates earlier this fall.
“I’m kind of getting where I like these debates,” Perry said in his first remarks of the evening; the audience laughed. “As a matter of fact, I hope Obama and I debate a lot and I’ll get there early and we will get it on.”
Perry also joked that he wanted to be the Tim Tebow of the Republican field, a reference to the NFL quarterback who has led the Denver Broncos to a string of surprising victories.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who is not campaigning in Iowa, also participated in last night’s debate which was broadcast nationally on the FOX News Channel.