SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Facing off against the rest of the Republican field in the final debate before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, Newt Gingrich defended his work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and didn't back off from a number of his more contentious stances, including abolishing federal courts he finds too activist.
He also proposed cutting off all federal funding for sanctuary cities who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement, and said he would drop lawsuits against states that have passed their own immigration crackdown laws.
But he took fire from the other candidates, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in particular, who questioned his pro-life record and said he was working for the two mortgage giants at a time when other conservatives were trying to close them down.
"I was trying to see these two entities put into bankruptcy," she said. "We can't have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They need to be shut down, not built up."
Mr. Gingrich vehemently denied her charge that the $1.6 million in payments he took from the two government-sponsored enterprises were for lobbying.
"I have never once changed my positions because of any kind of payment," the former House speaker "The fact is, I only chose to work with people whose values I shared. And having people have a chance to buy a house is a value I still believe is important."
Meanwhile his top rival for the GOP's presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, repeatedly passed on chances to attack Mr. Gingrich and instead turned his fire on President Obama — the strategy that he had used for most of the campaign but got away from in recent months.
In particular, Mr. Romney ridiculed the president for asking this week that Iran return an unmanned American drone that went off course and went down over its territory and which Tehran said it will keep and try to download data from.
"A foreign policy based on 'pretty please?' You've got to be kidding," Mr. Romney said.
Asked about criticism Mr. Gingrich has leveled against his record of bankrupting or cutting jobs at companies he invested in when he ran Bain Capital, Mr. Romney said he expects Mr. Obama to make the same charge.
But Mr. Romney said he'll point to what the president did with General Motors, when the government pushed to close factories in order to save the core company.
"This president doesn't know how the economy works. I believe to create jobs, it helps to have created jobs," Mr. Romney said.
The 13th debate of the year, aired by Fox News, amounted to a closing argument for the seven candidates on stage ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, and aside from the repeated attacks on Mr. Gingrich, the field followed Mr. Romney's lead in spending a majority of the time blasting Mr. Obama and sparring over who was most electable.
Mr. Gingrich said he sees himself following the model of Ronald Reagan, who was down dramatically in the polls to then-President Jimmy Carter before winning a landslide election in 1980.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, chose a more modern model: Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who has shocked sports fans with repeated miraculous comebacks.
"I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses," he said.
Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who is the latest to see positive movement in the polls, said he is not worried about electability next year.
"Fortunately for the Republican Party this year, probably anybody up here could probably beat Obama," he said. "The challenge isn't all that great on how we're going to beat Obama. I think he's beating himself."
Mr. Paul, though, faced heavy criticism from his fellow candidates for saying he doubted Iran was working toward a nuclear weapon, and saying if it was, it would be understandable given their geography. He said some American officials appear to be laying the ground for war.
"You know what I really fear about what's happening here? It's another Iraq coming. It is war propaganda going on," he said. "To me the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact, that we will soon bomb Iran."
He later said he didn't want Tehran to get an atomic bomb, but said the solution was not sanctions or war, but rather a retrenchment of U.S. military positions throughout the world.
The most pointed exchanges came between Mr. Gingrich on the one hand and and Mrs. Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania on the other, with the latter candidate implying Mr. Gingrich was not a reliable conservative when he was House speaker in the mid-1990s.
"If you were a conservative and you had an issue that you wanted to get voted on and you wanted to get done in the United States Senate, you came to Rick Santorum, because I was the guy fighting for the conservative cause when it was popular and when it was unpopular," he said.
"The speaker had a conservative revolution against him when he was the speaker of the House. I had conservatives knocking down my door, because I was the effective advocate for the principles that they believed in."
Mrs. Bachmann also questioned Mr. Gingrich's pro-life bona fides on the grounds that he said he would campaign for Republicans who opposed bans on partial-birth abortion, a charge that Mr. Gingrich dismissed by saying he opposes party purges and by pointing to pro-life groups having given him a 98.5 percent rating as a legislator.
Under that scrutiny from both his fellow candidates and the Fox News panelists, Mr. Gingrich didn't back down from his stances, including defending his plan to try to force federal judges to curtail their more adventurous decisions — up to abolishing entire appeals courts over decisions that he said pervert the Constitution.
"I would be prepared to take on the judiciary if in fact it did not restrict what it was doing," he said.
The debate — the last one scheduled before Iowa voters hold their Jan. 3 caucuses — marked the last, best chance for the candidates to appeal to the broad swath of voters with any depth.
From here on out, the battle will be fought in 30-second television ads that reach broadly but usually deliver little substance, or town hall meetings that deliver on depth but are limited to several dozen people at a time.
A new Rasmussen Reports poll released Thursday showed Mr. Romney taking a 3 percentage point lead in Iowa from Mr. Gingrich, who a month ago held a 13-point lead. Other recent polls still show Mr. Gingrich on top, with Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul competing for second place.
Beyond Iowa, Mr. Romney holds a lead in polling in New Hampshire. Mr. Gingrich is ahead in South Carolina polling and holds a lead in the national polls, too — though judging by past primaries, the national numbers can change dramatically after the first couple of states have voted.
And even with the GOP changing its rules this year to award delegates to next summer's nominating convention proportionally, rather than winner-take-all, the press attention that comes with early wins has an outsized effect.
That makes Iowa and New Hampshire all the more important — and it's why candidates such as Mr. Perry and Mr. Santorum are focusing so heavily on Iowa. Both men are crisscrossing the state, shaking hands and meeting voters in small-group settings.
Mr. Romney has not spent much time in Iowa, particularly compared to the $10 million effort he made in 2008. But his campaign has said it is competing to win here.
Also on stage Thursday was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who has largely forgone campaigning in Iowa to focus on New Hampshire's primary.
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