JOHNSTON, Iowa — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee emerged unscathed from a surprisingly docile debate Wednesday, as rivals passed on their last chance to challenge the new front-runner face to face before Iowa kicks off voting in three weeks for the Republican presidential nomination.
Huckabee appeared to benefit both from chief rival Mitt Romney's refusal to criticize him in person, and from the debate moderator, who didn't allow any interaction between candidates and cut off discussion when rivals went after each other.
Huckabee still faces criticism, particularly from a TV ad Romney started airing in Iowa this week accusing him of being soft on the children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas.
But Huckabee faced no test or challenge to his new status as frontrunner in the kickoff state, during a debate that had been hyped as a probable political smack-down.
"They really gave Huckabee a free pass," said Charles Black, a veteran Republican strategist and adviser to the campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "They didn't take him on."
The 90-minute debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television, was an unusually muted affair in which candidates essentially read their own talking points on such issues as restraining federal spending and cutting taxes.
Asked to detail where they would cut the federal budget, only two candidates gave specific answers. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said he'd cut 342 federal economic development programs to fewer than 100, and pare back 13 different programs aimed at fighting teen-age pregnancy to one.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said he'd cut Medicare for the wealthy, such as Warren Buffett.
Moderator Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Register, said at the outset that she wouldn't even ask about illegal immigration, the hot-button issue that most divides Republican candidates. She said that Iowans were more interested in other issues.
Late in the debate, Tancredo tried to ask Huckabee to reconcile his past support of school benefits for the children of illegals with his current hard-line approach. Washburn cut him off.
At another point, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California tried to ask Romney about a business decision he'd made while he was an investment banker that helped a Chinese concern buy an American defense firm. Washburn also cut him off. She didn't ask or allow Romney to respond.
Washburn appeared to lose control of the debate at another point, when Thompson protested her request that they raise their hands in response to a yes-or-no question on global warming and whether humans caused it.
"Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?" Thompson demanded.
"No," Washburn said.
"Well then I'm not going to answer it," Thompson said, to applause.
His communications director, Todd Harris, later issued a statement saying: "I am not sure how these candidates plan to defeat al-Qaeda when they can't even take on Carolyn Washburn. The format of this debate was more of a joke than a Mike Huckabee foreign-policy answer."
While the debate shunned controversy, there was no escaping some of the tensions between Huckabee and Romney off camera.
Moments after they walked off stage, Huckabee sought out Romney to apologize for comments he'd made in a magazine article that appeared to criticize Romney's Mormon religion.
"After the debate, I went to Mitt Romney and apologized," Huckabee told reporters.
He said he told Romney he didn't think his religion should be a reason for someone to vote for him or against him.
"He was gracious," Huckabee said. "I hope he knows I was sincere."