Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry… (Jim Young, Reuters )
Reporting from Sioux City, Iowa — Acting on their best behavior, the two Republican front-runners essentially called a cease-fire Thursday night in their fratricidal primary fight, using the last full-scale presidential debate of the year mainly to assail President 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 that 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 that despite his past ties, he continued to favor the elimination of Freddie Mac.
"I will state unequivocally for every person watching tonight," Gingrich said, sternly looking into the camera and knifing his hand through the air, "I have never once changed my position because of any kind of payment."
Later, the former House speaker accused the congresswoman of misstating the facts about his record on abortion, causing Bachmann to bristle.
"I think it's outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debates that I don't have my facts right when as a matter of fact I do," she said. "I'm a serious candidate for president of the United States."
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 the Iranian president's threat to "wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map."
Paul, his voice rising, said he "obviously" did not want Iran to become a nuclear power, but he said that to "declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims" was "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 the state caucuses. "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, broadcast by Fox from the convention center in Sioux City, was the 13th debate of the campaign. Romney and Gingrich were front and center; their staging reflected the candidates' standing 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 lessons about how the economy works," Romney said. "This president doesn't know how the economy works."
Later, when the discussion turned to foreign affairs, Romney was asked about the drone aircraft that recently crashed in Iran and Obama's request for Tehran to return it. Romney scorned the president's approach as amounting to a "pretty please" foreign policy.
Gingrich leads in surveys of Republican voters, nationally as well as in Iowa, though his popularity has slipped in some recent polling. He has been pounded over the Iowa airwaves for the last 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 speaker as unethical and politically untrustworthy. Gingrich responded with a spot Thursday that chided his opponents and suggested he would avoid such negativity, a tack he took in the debate even though he was the main target for much of the night.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum noted that Republican congressmen had waged " a conservative revolution against him when he was speaker of the House," referring to a failed coup attempt against Gingrich's leadership in 1997.
Gingrich was buffeted over his proposals to dramatically shake up the judicial system by eliminating the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and subpoenaing judges to appear before Congress.
"The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful and I think, frankly, arrogant in their misreading of the American people," he said.