In the final debate before voting starts in the 2012 presidential contest, front-running
battled renewed criticism Thursday night from rivals over his activities outside of government, including taking $1.6 million from mortgage giant
argued that even if Gingrich was not technically a lobbyist, the paychecks he received were clear evidence that he was influence peddling.
Gingrich, under sustained fire as the pre-primary season nears an end, responded by accusing Bachmann of making "wild allegations." He said he would like to eliminate both
and Freddie Mac, though he defended the government-chartered mortgage company and its efforts to expand home ownership when serving as a paid consultant.
"I will state unequivocally for every person watching tonight: I have never once changed my position because of any kind of payment," Gingrich said. "The truth is I was a national figure, I was doing just fine. I was doing a whole variety of things including writing best-selling books, making speeches and the fact is I only chose to work with people whose values I share and having people have a chance to buy a house is a value I believe is still important in America."
, whose potent Iowa organization has made him a strong contender to win the Jan. 3 caucuses, delivered one of his most emotional debate performances after he came under attack from Bachmann over his dovish attitude toward
. She accused the Texas congressman of espousing a "dangerous" position on restraining Iran's nuclear program, noting Iran's stated threat to "wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map."
Paul, his voice rising, said he "obviously" does not want Iran to become a nuclear power, but he said that to "declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims" is "dangerous talk."
"Why do we have to bomb so many countries?" asked Paul, whose non-interventionist views set him apart from his
opponents. "The danger is overreacting. … You cannot solve these problems with war."
On a chilly night in western Iowa, the two-hour forum held near the banks of the Missouri River was telecast by
, the sponsor, as a "closing argument" to the voters of Iowa, who will launch the 2012 nomination season in less than 20 days. Polls show Gingrich, Paul and
in a close contest for first place in a race that remains extremely fluid.
At the outset, Gingrich defended the consistency of his conservatism and rebutted a comment by Iowa's Republican governor,
, who earlier in the day questioned his discipline and trustworthiness.
Gingrich responded by citing his years-long effort to stage a Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 election and said he does "change things when conditions change, and part of the difference is, I strive for very large changes. And I'm prepared to really try to lead the American people to get this country back on the right track, and that's a very large change."
, in a direct attack on Gingrich, pointed out that Republican congressmen waged "a conservative revolution against him when he was speaker of the House," referring to a coup attempt that fell short.
Romney, who has stepped up his attacks on Gingrich in recent days, was content to stand aside and let the other candidates go after the former House speaker. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor repeatedly turned his remarks toward Obama, repeating many of the lines he uses in campaign appearances.
Romney drew applause when he said that Obama "thinks America is in decline. It is, if he's president. It's not if I'm president. This is going to be an American century."
, who is trying to regain his footing after a series of poor debate performances, said he was growing more comfortable in such settings and would be able to compete with
if he were the nominee.
"I want to share something with you: at each one of these debates, I'm kind of getting where I like these debates," Perry said. "As a matter of fact, I hope Obama and I debate a lot. And I'll get there early and we'll get it on, and we will talk about our differences."
He said he would discuss his job creation record in Texas, as well as his proposals to create a federal balanced budget amendment and to make Congress a part-time body, a proposal that drew applause from the debate audience.
Cognizant of his underdog role, Perry compared himself to
, noting that many doubted his ability to be a successful NFL quarterback. The player, also known for his strong religious beliefs, has wildly outperformed expectations.
"Let me tell you, I hope to be the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses," said Perry, who is making a strong appeal to Iowa's evangelical voters, a potent force in the state's caucuses.
Former Utah Gov.
, asked whether he was too moderate to galvanize Republican voters, responded with unusually strong language as he attacked the lack of trust in Wall Street and the dysfunctional government in Washington.
"We are getting screwed as Americans," said Huntsman, calling for congressional term limits. "I'm going to fix this country's trust deficit, because we're too good as a people to be in the hole we're in, and we deserve better."
Romney and Gingrich were presented front and center onstage in the 13th Republican debate, reflecting their standing in the nomination contest. An audience of 1,800 looked on at the convention center auditorium in downtown Sioux City, the capital of socially conservative western Iowa.
Huntsman, excluded by low poll numbers from Saturday's night's debate in Des Moines, rejoined his rivals for the first time since last month.
Gingrich is leading in surveys of Republican voters — nationally as well as in Iowa — though his popularity has slipped in some recent polls. He was pummeled by his rivals in last weekend's nationally televised debate.
He has also been pounded over the Iowa airwaves for the past week in attack ads placed by Paul, Perry and Romney. Those commercials — inescapable for anyone watching Iowa television, morning or night — portray him as unethical and untrustworthy.
Gingrich responded with a new spot Thursday that chided his opponents and suggested he would avoid such negativity.