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5 things we learned from Sioux City debate

By Shawna Shepherd, Rachel Streitfeld and Adam Aigner-Treworgy, CNN
updated 8:46 AM EST, Fri December 16, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newt Gingrich: "I've said consistently, these are all friends of mine"
  • Ron Paul goes against the mainstream GOP grain regarding the policy toward Iran
  • Michele Bachmann has the sharpest attack lines against frontrunner Gingrich
  • Rick Perry delivers a forceful performance; Jon Huntsman likely aims for New Hampshire

(CNN) -- The sharp attacks between the Republican frontrunners that have played out in media interviews and television ads largely took a backseat in the debate in Sioux City, Iowa. It was the final debate before January's pivotal Iowa caucuses.

Here are five things we learned from Thursday night's debate:

Front-runners play nice

In the past week, there has been no love lost between GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. On Tuesday, Romney called for Gingrich to return all the money he received for consulting for Freddie Mac, and Gingrich responded by telling reporters in New Hampshire that Romney should return all the money he earned "bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years" at Bain Capital.

Most recently, Romney's campaign sent Iowa Republicans a mailer featuring a half-page picture of Gingrich seated next to liberal Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

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But little of that enmity was visible on stage in Sioux City.

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"I've said consistently, these are all friends of mine," Gingrich said, referencing his rivals on stage. "Any of these folks would be better than Barack Obama in the White House. Any of them would be great in the next administration."

"Let's every day remember that, time and time again, it's President Obama we've got to be talking about," Romney said at the end of the debate, and for the most part he stuck to his pledge.

Even when directly asked to respond to a Gingrich attack, Romney immediately pivoted to focus on Obama.

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Perhaps Romney was responding to Gingrich's recent call for a positive campaign, but after the debate Romney's senior strategist Eric Fehrnstrom did not rule out future attacks.

"He has to win a primary against six or seven other candidates and so he's going to differentiate and distinguish himself from his competitors from time to time," Fehrnstrom said. "We're getting closer to the first contest and I think as that happens the campaign becomes more intense and more competitive on the part of every candidate."

Paul leaps outside mainstream

Despite a recent surge in the polls and a growing base of support among early-state voters, Ron Paul showed that he's still out of step with the Republican mainstream on one major issue: foreign policy.

Paul could rock GOP race in Iowa

Fox News anchor Bret Baier kicked off the second hour of debate by asking Paul if his non-interventionist position toward Iran means that if he got the nomination he'd be running to the left of President Obama.

"But I'd be running with the American people, because it would be a much better policy," Paul said. He then cited the United Nations and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to argue that there is no evidence that Iran is even close to developing a nuclear weapon.

"It's no different than it was in 2003," Paul said. "You know what I really fear about what's happening here? It's another Iraq coming. There's war propaganda going on. To me, the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact and we will soon bomb Iran."

Even when Baier pushed him to respond to a hypothetical situation where he "had solid intelligence as President Paul" that Iran was close to building a nuclear weapon, the congressman stood firm. No matter the circumstances, Paul said he would remove all economic sanctions currently in place against Iran, even going so far as to compliment Obama for his handling of the situation -- virtual apostasy in a GOP debate.

"I think he is wisely backing off on the sanctions," Paul said, warning of the effects sanctions on Iran could have on Europe. "Sanctions are an act of war when you prevent goods and services from going into a country. We need to approach this a little differently. We have 12,000 diplomats in our services. We ought to use a little bit of diplomacy once in a while."

Paul is no stranger to going out on a limb, and although he received a smattering of applause for his principled stance, he found no agreement from his rivals on the stage. In fact, one of the largest cheers of the night came after when Michele Bachmann called his position "dangerous."

So while Paul is finding traction with a growing section of libertarian-leaning Republicans, his approach to foreign policy may still be a little too hard-line for a majority of primary voters.

Bachmann goes on the offense

Michele Bachmann has been hovering in the bottom-tier ever since her Iowa straw poll win in August, but she held her own on the stage in Sioux City and may have even fared better than many of her competitors.

She had the sharpest attack lines of the night against frontrunner Gingrich: "You don't need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence-peddling with senior Republicans in Washington, D.C., to get them to do your bidding."

The Minnesota congresswoman also drew applause when she challenged Ron Paul's position on Iran. "I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul," Bachmann said.

CNN's Truth Squad

Gingrich dressed Bachmann down for challenging his work with mortgage giant Freddie Mac, saying people like her "ought to have facts before they make wild allegations."

Bachmann quickly deflected the criticism and charged back at the frontrunner.

"I think it's outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debate that I don't have my facts right when as a matter of fact I do," Bachmann said. "I'm a serious candidate for president of the United States. And my facts are accurate."

But if Bachmann still feels the need to proclaim her seriousness at this point in the race, Iowa voters may have similar concerns.

Perry peaks at right time?

If only Rick Perry had begun like this.

The Texas governor delivered a forceful performance in a state where he hopes to reinvigorate his struggling campaign, including delivering perhaps the line of the night when he said he might just defy expectations and become the "Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses."

Just like for Tebow and his fluky mechanics, expectations for Perry in this debate were certainly low. But he was warmly received by the audience on topics ranging from dismissing Attorney General Eric Holder to establishing a part-time Congress to defending the border from illegal entrants -- an issue Perry has worked to turn into a rhetorical strength.

"I've been dealing with this issue for 11 years," he said of sealing the Texas-Mexico border. "I've sent Texas Ranger recon teams there. Our law enforcement men and women face fire from across the border or in the U.S. side from these drug cartels. It is not safe there. Our country is at jeopardy."

At one point Perry, the politician with a history of verbal slips, even corrected moderator Baier when he misattributed a quote to Ronald Reagan.

If Iowa voters were impressed by Perry's performance, his rapid improvement as a debater may just come in time to make a difference on January 3.

Huntsman left his heart in New Hampshire

Jon Huntsman made a rare trip to Iowa to participate in the debate, but his answers seemed directed more to the socially moderate and Independent voters who populate his adopted state of New Hampshire.

The former Utah governor emphasized his conservative credentials on the economy, including instituting a flat tax in his home state and his "limited government, pro-growth" philosophy.

Asked about the United Nations -- traditionally a punching bag for Republicans -- Huntsman said "it serves a useful purpose in the area of peacekeeping."

On a question about environmental concerns overruling energy production, Huntsman called it "a delicate balance," and espoused natural gas as one part of the solution.

And in case anybody didn't get the message, at one point Huntsman told his colleagues on the stage: "You don't need to pander," he said. "We need to be who we are."

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