Republicans meet for final debate of 2011

With the Iowa caucuses fast approaching on Jan. 3, Republican presidential contenders met in Sioux City Thursday night for their final debate of 2011. Here’s a quick look at how each candidate fared.

Newt Gingrich:

Gingrich entered the debate still deemed the pack’s frontrunner, although a surprising Rasmussen poll shows him possibly falling behind Romney in Iowa. The debate started poorly for the former speaker of the U.S. House, as he faced questions about his conservative credentials and personal discipline. The attacks came most pointedly from Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul, both of whom look for a strong finish in Iowa to remain contenders for the nomination.

Gingrich fared better as the debate went on, although his eye-rolling reaction shots to Bachmann may not have helped his favorability ratings among women. Overall, this debate was more sedate than the one held last week, and most attacks were directed toward Democratic President Barack Obama, allowing Gingrich to likely emerge from the night no worse for the wear.

Mitt Romney:

Coming off what may have been his poorest debate performance last week, Romney seemed more relaxed Thursday night. He was largely spared the onslaught from his fellow contenders that he suffered in the previous meeting, aside from some jabs by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

Romney did get mired in a series of questions on flip-flopping from Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, his answers to which may not have satisfied those who continue to hold suspicions of his conservative consistency.

For the most part, Romney tried to appear as the most “presidential” of the lot, and saved his strongest criticisms for President Obama. He likely succeeded tonight in rebounding from last week’s debate stumble.

Ron Paul:

Thursday’s debate again showed why Paul has a loyal following but struggles with breaking through to a broader GOP audience. While he performed well on fiscal issues – with a slight detour into questions of hypocrisy for sending federal funds back to his home district – Paul may have lost much of the Republican audience with his harsh criticisms of American foreign policy, attacking his fellow contenders for their hawkish rhetoric against Iran.

Although Paul might have a tough time emerging with the party’s nomination, among the second-tier contenders he is the most likely to be able to sustain his campaign until the convention even without a big win in the primaries.

Michele Bachmann:

The Minnesota congresswoman seemed primed for an aggressive debate performance Thursday night as she makes a play to finish near the top in Iowa. Bachmann trained her fire on Gingrich and Paul, calling the latter’s stance on Iran “dangerous.”

After Gingrich said she had a tendency to get her facts wrong about his positions, a visibly perturbed Bachmann responded, “I am a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate.”

Bachmann certainly seemed to command a good amount of camera time Thursday and made a vocal case to Republican Iowa caucus-goers.

Rick Perry:

The Texas governor arrived loose and prepared with quick one-liners Thursday night. This may have been his strongest debate performance yet, which could be key to him reviving his lagging candidacy with a strong showing in Iowa.  Perry played up his anti-Washington stances, arguing for a part-time Congress and an end to lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary.

His line about hoping to be the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses was a memorable – if likely canned – one. After a lackluster start to his campaign, a surprise win in the Hawkeye State could jump-start a comeback for Perry.

Rick Santorum:

The former senator from Pennsylvania continues to make an aggressive push for votes in Iowa among social conservatives.

He took Gingrich head on by saying that the former speaker had been pushed out by a conservative revolution and made a passing reference to Gingrich’s marital issues, saying Republicans need a nominee “with a strong political and personal life.” Santorum also attacked Romney on the issue of gay marriage in Massachusetts.

If his candidacy is going to survive beyond the first few weeks of January, Santorum needs a big finish in Iowa and tonight was perhaps his most forceful debate performance so far.

Jon Huntsman:

The former Utah governor seemed something of an afterthought in Thursday’s debate, getting relatively little screen time. However, he used that time to remind voters of his foreign-policy experience as he attempted to tie his background as the U.S. ambassador to China into a larger question about revitalizing the nation’s economy.

Huntsman’s performance Thursday may not have much impact on his standing in Iowa, where he has spent little time or capital, and instead keeps him on the radar for his all-important push in New Hampshire a week after the Iowa caucuses.

Final note:

While Thursday’s debate saw moments of the internecine feuding among the GOP that the Obama campaign hopes lasts well into 2012, the candidates focused most of their criticisms on the president.  That trend was especially evident with Gingrich and Romney, who largely avoided engaging each other in a hostile fashion.

There are still over two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses and much can happen between now and then. But with the final debate of the year now history, much of what occurs until Jan. 3 will be driven on the ground and by the individual candidates as they try to manage the vicious news cycle.

While Gingrich did little to undue his frontrunner status in Thursday’s debate, nature and political pundits abhor a vacuum, and with the chattering classes clamoring for drama in the GOP nomination fight, Gingrich must take caution against a last-minute fall from atop his perch before Hawkeye caucus-goers cast their votes.

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