ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
Today's Republican debate in Iowa is the last time voters get to see those candidates face off before the caucuses. Iowa's caucuses kick off the nominating contest in just over three weeks.
Today, the economy and education were the dominant topics today. Immigration barely came up in the debate, even though it's a hot topic in Iowa and the focus of a new TV ad pinning Mitt Romney against Mike Huckabee.
Here is NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has lost his lead in Iowa polls to Republican rival Mike Huckabee, who has become the darling of social conservatives in the state. Romney was asked today whether it's more important for a candidate to be a social conservative or a fiscal conservative. Romney promised to be both.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): We're not going to get the White House nor strengthen America unless we can pull together the coalition of conservatives and conservative thought that has made us successful as a party. And that's social conservatives, it's also economic conservatives and foreign policy and defense conservatives.
HORSLEY: Huckabee, who might have been the target of criticism by virtue of his new frontrunner status, responded with a call for coalition-building of his own.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): I think the first priority of the next president is to be a president of all the United States. We are, right now, a very polarized country, and that polarized country has led to a paralyzed government. We got Democrats who fight Republicans, liberals fighting conservatives, the left fights the right. Who's fighting for this country again?
HORSLEY: Huckabee breaks from some of the other Republicans in the field by blending economic populism with his conservative stance on social issues. Although most Republicans are weary of taxes, Huckabee wants to scrap the income tax altogether in favor of a national consumption tax, which he calls the fair tax.
Mr. HUCKABEE: Over 80 percent of the American people know that the tax code is irreparably broken. I would lead one to a fair tax, and that means that the rich people aren't going to be made poor, but maybe the poor people could be made rich. That ought to be the goal of any tax system. Not to punish somebody, but to enable somebody so that they can have a part of the American dream.
HORSLEY: Romney, for his part, has proposed tax cuts on savings and investments for families making less than $200,000.
Mr. ROMNEY: I don't stay awake at night worrying about the taxes that rich people are paying, to tell you the truth. I'm concerned about the taxes that middle-class families are paying. They're in a lot of pressure. Gasoline's expensive. Home-heating oil, particularly in the Northeast, is very difficult for folks. Health care costs are going through the roof. Education costs and higher education are overwhelming. And as a result, we need to reduce the burden on middle-income families in this country.
HORSLEY: That prompted this come back from former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.
Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Senator, Tennessee; Republican Presidential Candidate): My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. THOMPSON: But…
Mr. ROMNEY: What I presented - that's your situation.
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I present - well, you're getting to be a pretty good actor, actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HORSLEY: Talk turned next to trade, which is a sensitive subject in Iowa. The state is a major exporter, with one in five jobs tied to foreign trade. But Iowa has also lost high-paying manufacturing jobs, and many here are suspicious that free trade is good for the economy.
Arizona Senator John McCain pledged to champion Iowa products in markets worldwide, but he risked the wrath of Iowa farm interests by speaking out against ethanol subsidies and tariffs, which restrict free trade.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I don't believe that anybody can stand here and say that they're a fiscal conservative and yet support subsidies which distort markets and destroy our ability to compete in the world and destroy our ability to get cheaper products into the United States of America.
HORSLEY: Candidates were also asked about education, a topic that moderator Carolyn Washburn of the Des Moines Register said had not gotten enough attention during the presidential campaign.
Thompson blamed teachers' unions for resisting reforms. And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said parents have to have the freedom to pick their children's school.
Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York; Republican Presidential Candidate): I'm here because of the educational choices my parents made, or I wouldn't be here or have achieved anything that I've achieved, and that's the place where the decisions should be made.
HORSLEY: There were almost no questions about immigration because, Washburn says, Iowans already know where the candidates stand on that hot-button issue.
Frontrunner Mike Huckabee won the endorsement yesterday of anti-immigration activist Jim Gilchrist, but Huckabee was still grilled by immigration hawk Tom Tancredo of Colorado about past comments, which seem to show compassion for people in the country illegally.
Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado; Presidential Candidate): How are you going to convince America that you have, in fact, changed your mind on immigration from when you were a governor?
Ms. Carolyn Washburn (Editor, The Des Moines Register): Congressman Tom…
HORSLEY: Huckabee says his New Year's resolution is to be a lot more careful about everything he says.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Johnston, Iowa.