Michele Bachmann channeled Herman Cain, Rick Santorum rattled off the geography of Iowa and Rick Perry stressed his Christianity on Saturday night as the GOP presidential field's second tier sought to use the little time left to close the gap with the front-runners in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Mrs. Bachmann drew the lines of the battle early in the debate in Des Moines by attacking the candidate she labeled "Newt Romney" — an amalgam of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, the two front-runners she said are indistinguishable on the fundamentals of health care, global warming and the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
"That's why I say, 'Newt Romney' — you've got to have our nominee as someone who is a stark, distinct difference with President Obama," said the congresswoman from Minnesota.
Mr. Romney countered that the comparison was based on faulty information — "I know Newt Gingrich. And Newt Gingrich is a friend of mine. But, he and I are not clones, I promise," he said.
But the former Massachusetts governor and the former speaker of the U.S. House remained in the line of fire for much of the night.
The debate underscored the two campaigns going on simultaneously: Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Romney and Rep. Ron Paul are battling for the top spots in Iowa, but the other candidates are jostling to be the top of the next tier and hope to rise from there.
Polling in Iowa should give them hope. The lead has flipped repeatedly, from Mr. Romney to Mrs. Bachmann in July, to Mr. Perry in September, back to Mr. Romney for a brief moment in October, then to Mr. Cain and now to a surging Mr. Gingrich.
The only two candidates competing who haven't led in Iowa, according to RealClearPolitics.com's average of polls, are Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul — a Texas Republican who has seen his level of support in the state steadily climb. He is now nearly tied with Mr. Romney for second.
Mr. Perry, who surrendered his lead months ago, is trying to recapture it by appealing to the heavily religious Christian voters who make up the Iowa GOP's caucusgoers. They're the same ones who powered former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to his stunning win in 2008.
In a television ad last week, Mr. Perry said it was wrong that prayer is banned in public schools, but openly gay and lesbian troops are now accepted in the military. And in Saturday's debate, he pointed to his marriage as a signal of his Christian values — and at the same time highlighted Mr. Gingrich's past marital troubles.
"Not only did I make a vow to my wife, but I made a vow to God. And that's pretty heavy lifting in my book," Mr. Perry said. "When I make a vow to God — then — I would suggest to you that's even stronger than a handshake in Texas."
Mrs. Bachmann, who led in Iowa in the summer, made a play for those voters left without a champion now that Mr. Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, has suspended his campaign. In both her opening and closing comments, she said she represents the same interests he did.
"You can't have a debate without saying '999' in the debate," she said, labeling her own plan the "win, win, win" path to boosting jobs.
Mr. Santorum, who has been making the rounds of Iowa emphasizing his social-conservative credentials, deployed some of the knowledge he's soaked up from his time in the state. He said that from Fremont County, tucked in the southwestern corner between Missouri and Nebraska, to Pella, east of Des Moines, the lesson he learned is that the U.S. needs to focus on manufacturing.
Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, the moderators from ABC, which aired Saturday night's debate, repeatedly brought the questions back to Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, making them the focus of attacks from the rest of the field — and from each other.
In the head-to-head matchup, they argued over who has flip-flopped more, who has the better friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who has spent less time in Washington.
"The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994," Mr. Gingrich told Mr. Romney as the candidates squared off for the latest debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Saturday.
Mr. Romney acknowledged that was true, but said losing that Senate race to Mr. Kennedy "was probably the best thing I could have done" because he stayed in the private sector and learned the lessons he said prepared him to run for president.
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