The Last Pre-Iowa Debate

Ron Paul’s defense of Iran steals the show.

The Republican presidential candidates had their last debate before the January 3 Iowa caucus last night and surprisingly, there was not a single confrontation between frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Instead, Ron Paul stole the show with his assertion that there is “no evidence” that Iran is seeking a nuclear device, sparking a furious back-and-forth with Michele Bachmann and, to a lesser degree, Rick Santorum.

Ron Paul was asked about his position in favor of lifting sanctions on Iran. He compared Iran to the Soviet Union, arguing in favor of deterrence and complained that “war propaganda” was falsely characterizing Iran as a threat. He commended President Obama for backing off of tougher sanctions on Iran, saying that they would hurt Europe. He also claimed that the U.S. was provoking Iran by surrounding it with military bases and by bombing Libya.

Rick Santorum was the first to respond. He said that the Iranian regime is the equivalent of Al-Qaeda and that it honors “martyrdom.” Mutually Assured Destruction is an incentive, not a deterrent, Santorum explained. He won applause by suggesting that the U.S. should tell Iran that if its nuclear sites are not shut down, then “we will close the nuclear facilities for you.”

Michele Bachmann took on Ron Paul with more fury. She first slammed President Obama for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq, noting that it gives Iran a bridge to the Mediterranean Sea through Syria. She then said that she has “never heard a more dangerous” statement than what Ron Paul said. She pointed out that the Iranian constitution mandates jihad and predicted that Iran would use its nuclear weapons on Israel and the U.S.

Ron Paul accused his rivals of wanting to declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims and said that presidential “overreaction” is a greater threat than Iran. He disagreed that the terrorists target the West for its way of life, claiming that Sweden and Switzerland are not targeted (that is false). He criticized President Obama for flying the stealth drone over Iran. Apparently, even overhead surveillance is too aggressive for Ron Paul.

Bachmann rebutted by pointing to the incriminating IAEA report showing that Iran is indeed working on a nuclear weapon and could be only months away from getting one. Ron Paul said she was wrong and that no U.N. report states that. He claimed that the report was intended to make you believe Iran was guilty, but that “no evidence” was actually provided. Ron Paul was mostly booed by the crowd.

The second big clash came between Bachmann and Gingrich. She criticized him for taking money from mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, claiming that he was paid to influence Republican officials to “keep the scam going.” She received moderate applause for the line. He said that she needed facts to back up her “wild allegations” and that his position was never influenced by money. Gingrich pledged to “break up” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if elected.

Bachmann fired at Gingrich again later in the debate. She said that as speaker of the House, he didn’t cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and attacked him for his willingness to campaign for Republicans that were against the partial-birth abortion ban. He responded with, “Sometimes Congresswoman Bachmann doesn’t get her facts very accurate,” which she said was “outrageous.”  He said he has an almost 100% pro-life record and that he’d use Planned Parenthood’s funding for adoption services. Gingrich received a big applause at the end of the exchange.

Mitt Romney refrained from attacking any other candidate. He mocked President Obama for asking Iran for the stealth drone back and said it was part of a foreign policy of “pretty please?” He had some bright moments when he talked about making sure that the 21st century belongs to America and peace through strength. His biggest moment was when he talked about his pro-life conversion. He said that as governor of Massachusetts, he did research when presented with a bill that would create embryos specifically to be destroyed. This caused him to change his position, he said. The audience clapped strongly.

Newt Gingrich’s big moments came when he slammed activist judges and cited incidents from history where Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson and FDR took on the courts. The audience also loved it when he said he’d “radically cut” funding to the U.N. if it did not reform and that he’d drop Justice Department lawsuits against the states of Arizona, South Carolina and Alabama for their immigration policies. His most popular moment was when he said President Obama’s position against the Keystone pipeline from Canada “makes no sense to any rational American.”

Rick Perry also pleased the audience in some big ways. In particular, his call for a part-time Congress that has its pay and staff cut in half was powerful. He was applauded when he said that if his Attorney General didn’t know about a large scandal like Fast & the Furious, as Eric Holder says he didn’t, he’d have him immediately resign. On foreign policy, Perry slammed Obama for his weakness in handling the drone landing in Iran and called for a new Monroe Doctrine to keep Iran out of Latin America. He also said he sought to be the “Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucus” and the audience loved it.

Jon Huntsman didn’t have a standout moment, but didn’t make a major misstep either. He received some claps and boos when he brought up how he declined to participate in a debate moderated by Donald Trump. He called for promoting human rights in China, such as by meeting with Chinese dissidents. He called for a modernized foreign policy that puts economics first. He also called for using natural gas to alleviate energy dependence.

Rick Santorum’s standout moments were when he criticized Mitt Romney for issuing marriage certificates to gay couples and accused him of siding with the supporters of same-sex marriage in his state. Romney responded that it was out of his hands but that he fought for an amendment to the state constitution to ban it. He also was heavily applauded when he complimented Iowans for kicking out three judges who ruled in favor of gay marriage and pointed out that he was the only candidate actively campaigning against them in Iowa.

The polls in the coming days will tell us who benefited and who lost from the debate. Chris Cillizza wrote in the Washington Post that Bachmann, Perry and Romney won, while Gingrich and Paul lost. Nate Silver graded the candidates. He gave an “A-“ to Romney, Bachmann and Perry; “B+” to Santorum; “B” to Gingrich; “B-" to Huntsman and a “C” to Paul.

There is less than three weeks to go until the Iowa caucus. The polls are contradictory and it’s hard to tell who is up and who is down in the state. The race has been unpredictable so far, and it will remain so until it is finished.

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