In Iowa, Bachmann Attacks Gingrich In GOP Debate

Newt Gingrich stood center state Thursday night in the Sioux City Convention Center. The sharpest elbows did not come from his close rivals, Mitt Romney or Ron Paul. Instead, it was Michele Bachmann who repeatedly went after Gingrich.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. When Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Sioux City last night for another televised debate, it was the last time they would share the stage before the Iowa caucuses; those caucuses are less than three weeks away. Front-runners were trying to defend their lead, while challengers strove to gain ground in what's already been an up-and-down political season.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Newt Gingrich stood center stage last night at the Sioux City Convention Center. And as the leader in many polls both nationally and here in Iowa, the former House speaker had the biggest target on his back.

The sharpest arrows of the night did not come from his closet rivals - Mitt Romney or Ron Paul. Instead, it was Michele Bachmann who repeatedly went after Gingrich, for what she saw was his insufficient opposition to late-term abortion, and for accepting consulting work with Freddie Mac. The Minnesota congresswoman sees Freddie, and its sister agency Fannie Mae, as central villains in the mortgage meltdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

MICHELE BACHMANN: I was trying to see these two entities put into bankruptcy - because they, frankly, need to go away - when the speaker had his hand out, and he was taking $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington, D.C. That's absolutely wrong.

HORSLEY: Gingrich defended both his pro-life record and his work with the government-backed mortgage giant. In an argument that might surprise some small-government conservatives, Gingrich said there's nothing inherently wrong with government-sponsored enterprises.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: When you look, for example, at electric membership co-ops, and you look at credit unions, there are a lot of government-sponsored enterprises that are awfully important and do an awfully good job.

HORSLEY: Bachmann, who needs a strong performance in Iowa to recharge her prospects, also attacked Ron Paul, who has polled consistently well in the state. Unlike most of his fellow Republicans, Paul cautioned against saber-rattling in the face of Iran's suspected nuclear program.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RON PAUL: You know what I really fear about what's happening here? It's another Iraq coming. It is war propaganda going on.

HORSLEY: Bachman insisted the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran to both Israel and the United States must be taken seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

BACHMANN: I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul. And I'll tell you the reason why...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Bachmann found some common ground with Gingrich on the subject of the federal courts. Gingrich has said Congress and the president should exert more authority over the courts. Asked if that means altering the current system of checks and balances, Gingrich said guilty as charged.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: It alters the balance because the courts have become grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful and, I think, frankly, arrogant in their misreading of the American people.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: That's a view that that finds some traction here in Iowa, where voters recently removed three state Supreme Court judges who'd ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

Rick Santorum, who's still looking for his own campaign traction, boasted last night he'd actively campaigned for those judges' removal.

The Republican candidates saved some of their sharpest attacks for President Obama. Gingrich joked he was biting his tongue when asked about a controversial oil pipeline the Obama administration has delayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: I sometimes get accused of using language that's too strong. So I've been standing here editing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH: And I'm very concerned about not appearing to be zany. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: Gingrich called the pipeline delay utterly irrational, and accused the president of bowing to left-wing environmental extremists.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took his own shots at the president, saying Mr. Obama doesn't know how to fix the economy, or how to lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he's president. It's not if I'm president. This is going to be an American century.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERS)

HORSLEY: Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman was left out of an earlier Iowa debate because his poll numbers here are too low. He did participate last night, but Huntsman's staking most of his effort in New Hampshire.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, on the other hand, is on an extended bus tour of Iowa and running lots of TV and radio ads here. Perry's been hurt by his performance in earlier debates. But he insists he's finally getting to like the format, and he's hoping for the kind of come-from-behind victory popularized by a certain Denver Broncos quarterback, who's also an evangelical favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK PERRY: I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: If so, the time for fourth-quarter heroics is fast approaching. The caucuses are just 18 days away. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Sioux City, Iowa.

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