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GOP candidates face off in crucial Iowa debate

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  • NEW: Candidates address financial situation, education, global warming
  • NEW: Keyes says we need to control hot air emission of politicians
  • GOP presidential candidates debate for last time before Iowa caucuses
  • Mike Huckabee currently surging in Hawkeye State polls

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(CNN) -- Issues most important to Iowa voters dominated Wednesday's debate between the GOP presidential candidates.

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The nine GOP candidates mostly refrained from attacking each other during Wednesday's debate.

The debate was to focus on "issues Iowans say they still want to know more about," moderator Carolyn Washburn said in her opening remarks. "We won't talk a lot about issues like Iraq or immigration. They're important issues, no doubt, but Iowans say they know where the candidates are coming from on those."

Candidates were first asked about the financial situation of the country, something former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called a "major problem" that hasn't been addressed.

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California called the budget deficit and the trade loss a threat to national security.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul agreed, saying, "It's absolutely a threat to our national security because we spent too much, we taxed too much, we borrowed too much, and we print too much."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the best answer for economic woes is to "make sure we have good jobs for our citizens, good schools for our kids, good health care for everyone and that we have policies that promote the growth of the nation."

The debate, sponsored by The Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television, marks the last time the GOP presidential hopefuls will appear on the same stage before the crucial Iowa caucuses on January 3.

When asked what his plan is for keeping foreign markets open while protecting American jobs, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said excessive taxation "penalizes the productivity of a company."

A look at Dial Testing
Watch AC360 to see Iowa voters' real-time reactions to today's debate.
Wed. 10 p.m ET

"You add to that excessive regulation, which means that you've got more red tape than is possible to get through," he said. "I can't part the Red Sea, but I believe I can part the red tape."

When asked to raise their hands if they believed global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said he wasn't "doing hand shows today."

Other candidates agreed. Thompson asked if he could answer the question instead, but was told no.

Arizona Sen. John McCain said he knows "climate change is real."

"I've been involved in this issue since the year 2000. I have had hearings. I've traveled the world," he said. "It's real, we've got to address it, we can do it with technology ... with capitalist and free enterprise motivation. And I'm confident that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren a cleaner, better world."

Former Ambassador Alan Keyes, said, "I'm in favor of reducing global warming, because I think the most important emission we need to control is the hot air emission of politicians who pretend one thing and don't deliver."

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When asked what they could "realistically" accomplish in their first year as president, Giuliani said "we could make sure the country is ... on the road to winning the war against Islamic terrorists."

Giuliani also said he would immediately begin to reduce the size of the federal government, citing his work as mayor of New York.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo said he would make sure the country begins the process of securing the borders and "enforcing the law inside the United States against hiring people who are here illegally."

The battle to win Iowa has increasingly come down to Romney and Huckabee, who has surged to the top of the polls largely due to the support of evangelical Christians.

A McClatchy-MSNBC poll conducted earlier this week had Huckabee leading the GOP field with the support of 32 percent of likely caucus-goers. Romney, who had been leading in Iowa for months, was at 20 percent in that poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Romney has sharpened his attacks on Huckabee, particularly on immigration, the issue the Romney camp views as one of his rival's biggest vulnerabilities, after the Arkansas Republican began rising in the polls. Huckabee was only at 12 percent in Iowa in September, according to the McClatchy-MSNBC poll. Video Watch Huckabee respond to Romney's latest attacks »

While Iowa's population is overwhelmingly white, the state's agricultural industry is attracting an increasing number of both legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants. The influx of these new workers has created a backlash among certain segments of Iowa's electorate, and is a hot button issue in the Republican presidential nominating contest.

Some GOP candidates are not only airing television ads touting their personal positions on illegal immigration, but they are also criticizing their opponents for being weak on the issue.

On Tuesday, Romney, who has lost his front-runner status in polls to Huckabee in Iowa, began airing an ad, titled "The Record." The ad compares the candidates' conservative stands on social issues but draws a sharp contrast on their track records on immigration policy, particularly the fact that Huckabee supported in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas while Romney opposed a such a measure in Massachusetts. Video Watch Romney's ad »

During an event Tuesday in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Huckabee called the ad "desperate" and said he thought it would backfire.

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"I'm somewhat flattered in that I seem to be the recipient of the first negative attack ad in the Republican primary," Huckabee said. "That's usually the kind of desperation on the part of an opponent who feels that his only way of winning is to attack and destroy."

The Democratic candidates will face off at 2 p.m. on Thursday. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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