JOHNSTON, Iowa - The Republican presidential candidates made their closing arguments to Iowa voters yesterday in the final debate before the Jan. 3 caucuses, a substantive, polite affair from which the front-runners emerged largely unscathed.
The tone of the debate reflected an unwillingness among the leading candidates to risk Iowans' ire by harshly attacking their opponents this close to the vote, and a decision by the moderator not to probe their views on illegal immigration, an especially volatile topic that provoked heated exchanges in past debates.
That dynamic imposed particular limitations on Mitt Romney, who has seen his once-commanding lead in Iowa evaporate following the up-from-nowhere rise of former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. To try to halt Huckabee's ascent, Romney has seized on his immigration record in TV ads and in past debates, but he had little opportunity to raise it yesterday.
The 90-minute afternoon debate, broadcast live on the major cable news channels, also largely sidestepped another issue on which Romney and Huckabee have tangled in recent days: religion, and specifically, Romney's Mormon faith.
Indeed, the most interesting moment of the debate may have been what happened the minute it ended, when Huckabee privately apologized to Romney for a quote in a
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is quoted saying, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
Romney responded on the "Today" show yesterday by saying that "attacking someone's religion is really going too far." "It's just not the American way, and I think people will reject that," he said.
Huckabee contends his remark was taken out of context, a point he said he made personally to Romney after the debate. As other candidates were leaving the stage, Huckabee and Romney stayed behind and talked privately.
Huckabee said that he explained that in a conversation about theology, he was asking the Times magazine interviewer about Mormonism because he knows very little about it - not raising it to "create something."
"I don't think his being Mormon or not being Mormon should have anything to do with being president," Huckabee told reporters. "I don't think people should vote for or against me because I'm a Baptist."
"I wanted to make sure he heard from me directly, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball," he added, describing Romney's reaction as "very sincere."
A Romney spokesman said he accepted the apology.
The debate, sponsored by The Des Moines Register, marked the beginning of the home stretch in Iowa, with just three weeks left before the caucuses. With Huckabee and Romney battling for the top spot, most eyes were on them as the candidates discussed economic policy, taxes, trade, education, energy, and climate change. The moderator, Register editor Carolyn Washburn, said she didn't ask about immigration or Iraq because voters already knew where the candidates stand.
Huckabee played the part of front-runner, issuing an upbeat prognosis for America, emphasizing compassion, and expressing a desire to bring the country together. "We've got to be the united people of a United States," he said. "A president has got to somehow remind us that we are a great, resilient nation that has to stick together to solve all of these problems."
Answering the same question, Romney cast himself as the ultra-competent CEO who could end illegal immigration, stem the growth in entitlement spending, and make American schools more competitive in a global economy. "I'll get us on track," he said. "We'll have a strong military, a stronger economy, and stronger values with stronger families after my first year in office."
Former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who was expected to do well in Iowa but has struggled in the polls, said he was the only candidate speaking candidly about the runaway cost of programs such as Social Security. "I don't think we, as American people, are so selfish that we're going to kick the can down the road and let everybody else solve that problem," he said. "That's not America."
Channeling the no-nonsense district attorney he played on "Law & Order," Thompson also asked voters: "When our worst enemy's thinking about what he can do to the United States of America, who do you want sitting on our side of the table representing you?"
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York, asked what sacrifices the country must make to meet his goal of trimming nonmilitary spending, said Americans would have to take more "ownership" of their healthcare "rather than relying on government as the nanny government."
"Let's rely on people to make choices about their healthcare," he said. "That's an American solution."
The debate also featured Senator John McCain of Arizona, who said he would restore "trust and confidence" in the presidency; US Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who reiterated his platform against illegal immigration; US Representative Duncan Hunter of California, who, like Huckabee, advocated replacing the income tax with a federal sales tax; and US Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who renewed his call for more limited government.
Alan Keyes, a former Reagan administration official who has not been in most debates, was invited, too, and he used most of his time to attack his opponents or complain about not getting enough attention.
Afterward, several of the candidates remarked on the debate's more sober, less combative tone. Huckabee said he was somewhat surprised.
"We had a full-scale paramedic kit," he said. "It was fairly innocuous. There was no blood left on the floor."
Susan Milligan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.