SIOUX CITY, Iowa _ Republican presidential candidates tried mightily Thursday to strengthen their stature as the conservative best poised to beat President Barack Obama as they engaged in their final debate before voting for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination starts in less than three weeks.
In their 13th debate this year, televised nationally by Fox News Channel, the candidates pledged allegiance to conservative Supreme Court justices, vowed to spur the private sector to create jobs and in some cases compared themselves to President Ronald Reagan.
While the exchanges were often fiery, and Iowa frontrunner Newt Gingrich was repeatedly challenged, no one made whats likely to be a destructive gaffe, nor did anyone emerge as an obvious winner.
Iowa voters hold the nations first caucus Jan. 3. The debates tone was somewhat gentler than the Iowa debate five days earlier, when Gingrich was a freshly minted poll frontrunner targeted relentlessly by his rivals.
This time, the former House of Representatives speaker came under fire for receiving $1.6 million from mortgage titan Freddie Mac.
Gingrich insisted that he did nothing wrong.
I was a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business, he said.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul wasnt buying it. It was a government-sponsored enterprise, Paul argued.
Gingrich, with a determined look, insisted, "The term 'government-sponsored enterprise' has a very wide range of (definitions) that do a great deal of good. They help credit unions, for instance.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Gingrichs most aggressive challenger throughout the debate, jumped in.
I am shocked listening to the former speaker of the House because he is defending the continuing practice of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, she said. She accused Gingrich of having his hand out when they needed to be shut down, not built up.
Gingrich vigorously disputed Bachmann's assertion, saying her claims were factually not true, saying, I never lobbied under any circumstance.
He was getting more and more irritated. I have never once changed my positions because of any kind of payment, he said.
The tone was calmer when the topic was one that has rarely come up in previous debates: judicial philosophy.
Gingrich has been criticized in some Republican circles for maintaining that if the Supreme Court rules in a manner that appears constitutionally questionable, the president and Congress can ignore the courts decisions.
"Our Founding Fathers believed that the Supreme Court was the weakest branch and that the legislative and executive branches would have ample abilities to check a Supreme Court that exceeded its powers," Gingrich said.
He was asked to defend that view Thursday, and he did so forcefully.
We do not have a judicial dictatorship in this country, Gingrich said. I would be prepared to take on the judiciary if it did not restrict itself in what it is doing.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney disagreed. I dont believe it makes a lot of sense to have Congress overseeing justices, particularly since Congress has even less credibility. Congress already has the tools to rein in judges, he said, including impeachment.
Later in the debate, Bachmann engaged Gingrich again, this time saying he supported candidates who backed late-term abortions.
Gingrich suggested Bachmann again did not have her facts correct.
Enough, Bachmann said. Im a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate, she said, adding that late-term abortion is not a small issue.
Gingrich explained that he would not go out and try to purge Republicans, adding he has consistently opposed partial birth abortion.
One of the debates liveliest exchanges involved Paul, who argues that the United States should curb its involvement in other nations affairs. He cited that useless war in Iraq and said that the U.S. should use diplomacy, not threats, in dealing with Iran.
Bachmann challenged him, saying that under his stewardship Iran would wind up attacking Israel and perhaps the United States.
Romney, too, insisted on American might. A strong America _ a strong America is the best ally peace has ever known. This is a president with the spy drone being brought down, he says pretty please? A foreign policy based on pretty please? You got to be kidding, he said.
The focus, though, was largely on Gingrich, who stood at the center, the spot reserved for the frontrunner of the moment.
He brushed aside questions about whether his record would make him a weak general election challenger to President Obama.
Romney has called Gingrich an unreliable conservative; Gingrich argued otherwise.
He likened himself to Ronald Reagan, noting that Reagan at this stage in 1979 trailed President Jimmy Carter by 30 percentage points and went on to debate Carter and win a 44-state landslide.
I believe I can debate Barack Obama, Gingrich said. Barack Obama will not have a leg to stand on.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking a comeback after stumbles in earlier debates, insisted that hes becoming a better debater and could take on Obama.
Im kind of getting to the point where I like these debates, he said. We will get it on, he said of a potential faceoff with Obama. Ill talk about what we did in Texas about a balanced-budget amendment about a part-time Congress.
He also likened himself to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, known for his Christian faith and for last-minute comebacks.
Am I ready for the next level? I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses, Perry said.
Also participating were former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
(Thomma reported from Sioux City, Lightman from Washington.)
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