Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul aim at Newt Gingrich in debate as Mitt Romney targets President Obama

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich stand by as Ron Paul addresses Michele Bachmann during last night’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich stand by as Ron Paul addresses Michele Bachmann during last night’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa. –Eric Gay/AP

Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul aggressively challenged Newt Gingrich last night for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mitt Romney instead trained his sights on President Obama and the general election.

With under three weeks to go before the first voting of the 2012 White House campaign, the seven candidates for the GOP nomination used sharply divergent strategies to deliver their pitch for the votes of Iowa caucus-goers.

The venue wasn’t the more traditional living room, VFW hall, or family farm, but this election’s proving ground: a nationally televised debate. The last, in fact, before the caucuses.

Rick SantorumEric Gay/AP

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Bachmann, Paul, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry took aim at the political and social conservatives who can often determine the caucus outcome.

Romney and Jon Huntsman took the longer view, exhibiting a sobriety they hoped would win them not only the nomination, but also the presidency.

Caught in between was Gingrich, the most recent campaign frontrunner.

The former speaker found himself having to fend off immediate and incessant attacks from two members of the US House he used to lead: Bachmann and Paul.

At one point, the Minnesota congresswoman said to Gingrich with indignation: “I think it’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debate that I don’t have my facts right when, as a matter of fact, I do. I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States. And my facts are accurate.’’

Meanwhile, Gingrich tried to keep pace with Romney and Huntsman, who themselves aimed to stay above the fray with more long-term appeals to the political middle.

“A strong America is the best ally peace has ever known,’’ Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said at one point in discussing Obama’s handling of a downed spy drone in Iran. “This is a president with the spy drone being brought down, he says, ‘Pretty please?’ A foreign policy based on, ‘Pretty please?’ You have got to be kidding.’’

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Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, said elsewhere: “I ran for re-election. I got almost 80 percent of the vote, not because I’m a great politician, but I learned some lessons in leadership, that people want to be told where you can take them, and then they want you to deliver.’’

The two-hour debate was co-sponsored by the Fox News Channel and the Iowa Republican Party. It was held in western Iowa, in the Sioux City Convention Center.

It was co-moderated by four Fox figures: Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, Neil Cavuto, and Chris Wallace.

It was marked by a particularly testy exchange between Paul, whom some political analysts predict could win the caucuses, and Bachmann, a native who won the Iowa Straw Poll in August but has since seen her poll standing plummet.

Paul, a Texas congressman whose campaign is rooted in a libertarian philosophy, was asked if he would still remove US sanctions on Iran even if he had intelligence the country was going to develop a nuclear weapon.

“It makes more sense to work with people,’’ he said. “And the whole thing is that nuclear weapons are loaded over there. Pakistan. India. Israel has 300 of them. We have our ships there. We’ve got to get it in a proper context. We don’t need another war. “

Bachmann outlined her anti-Iranian views before adding: “With all due respect to Ron Paul, I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul.’’

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She said the country has already vowed to use such a weapon not only against Israel but the United States.

Rick PerryEric Gay/AP

Paul replied: “I don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I would like to reduce them, because there would be less chance of war. But to declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims and say all Muslims are the same, this is dangerous talk.’’

Bachmann cited a UN report she said showed Iran “is within just months’’ of being able to obtain a nuclear weapon. Nothing could be more dangerous than the comments that we just heard.

Paul shot back: “There is no U.N. report that said that.’’

When Bachmann held her ground, Paul said: “That is not true. They produced information that led you to believe that, but they have no evidence.’’

Santorum, meanwhile, also sought to highlight his conservative credentials when he challenged Romney after the candidates were asked about gay marriage.

“He personally, as governor, issued gay marriage licenses,’’ the former Pennsylvania senator said of Romney, who was leading Massachusetts when the Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage.

Romney seemed to let the allegation hang rather than fully rebutting it.

“Let me tell you, I want to make it very clear: I have been a champion of protecting traditional marriage. That continues to be my view. If I somehow missed somewhere, I’m happy to get corrected. But that is something I feel very deeply,’’ he said.

For Perry, the debate was part of a last-ditch effort to revive a candidacy wounded by earlier debates.

The Texas governor used a sports metaphor to lobby for his candidacy, aligning himself with Tim Tebow, whose atypical throwing mechanics and Christian fundamentalist ways have prompted criticism even as he has posted a 7-1 record as quarterback of the Denver Broncos.

“There are a lot of folks that said Tim Tebow wasn’t going to be a very good NFL quarterback,’’ said Perry. “And, you know, he won two national championships (in college). And that looked pretty good. We’re the national champions in job creation back in Texas. But am I ready for the next level? Let me tell you: I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.’’

Huntsman, who has largely eschewed Iowa in favor of campaigning in New Hampshire, where he began polling in third place this week, sought to cast himself as a pragmatist.

“I’m the person who is going to lead the charge on all of the above and fix the economic deficit, but I’m going fix this country’s trust deficit, because we’re too good as people to be in the hole we’re in and we deserve better,’’ he said at one point.

Later, asked about illegal immigration, Huntsman said: “You don’t need to pander. We need to be who we are. But in terms of immigration, and illegal immigration, this president has so screwed up this economy, nobody is coming anymore. There is nothing to come for.’’

While taking the longer-term view like Romney, Huntsman lacks the national organization and fund-raising network and surrogate backbone of his fellow former governor.

Jon HuntsmanEric Gay/Pool via Reuters

Right now, that leaves Romney with what seems like the more realistic chance of winning the nomination.

For Romney last night, it appeared he made a strategic decision not to engage Gingrich or Perry or any of the other candidates, a reflex in recent debates that threw him on the defensive and led to spectacles such as him offering Perry a $10,000 bet to settle a dispute during a debate last Saturday.

Instead, Romney focused on Obama and the contrasts he thinks will help him win not just the nomination, but a general election.

On the subject of leadership, Romney said: “This is the question of the presidency: What is leadership?’’

He cited his bipartisan work with the heavily Democratic Massachusetts Legislature and said, “To get anything done, I had to learn how to get respect of the speaker of the house and the Senate president and Democratic leaders. I found a way to do that, to find common ground from time to time. And when crisis arose, we were able to work together. That is what has to happen.’’

And when asked whether he was vulnerable to an attack by Obama for occasions when he closed factories and laid off workers while working as a venture capitalist, Romney offered perhaps his most durable rejoinder yet.

“In the real world, some things don’t make it. And I believe I’ve learned from my successes and my failures,’’ he said. “The president, I’ll look at and say, ‘Mr. President, how did you do when you were running General Motors as the president, took it over? Gee, you closed down factories. You closed down dealerships.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well I did that to save the business.’ ‘Same thing with us, Mr. President. We did our very best to make those businesses succeed.’ I’m pleased that they did and I’ve learned the lessons of how the economy works.’’

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