SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich clashed sharply with one rival, took pains to compliment another and said it was laughable for any of them to challenge his conservative credentials Thursday night in the last campaign debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses kick off the 2012 primary season.
In a forceful attack, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said Gingrich "had his hand out and received $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans and keep the scam going in Washington, D.C.," for Freddie Mac, a government-backed housing entity.
"Just not true," Gingrich shot back. "I never lobbied under any circumstances," he added, denying a charge she didn't make.
The clash underscored the state of race, with Gingrich, the former House speaker, atop the polls in Iowa and nationally, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his other pursuers work in television ads and elsewhere to overtake him in the final days before the caucuses.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has staked his campaign on Iowa, was quick to challenge Gingrich as a conservative leader. He recalled Gingrich faced a "conservative revolution" from the ranks of Republican lawmakers when he was House speaker in the 1990s.
Rather than going after Gingrich, Romney, who runs second in the polls in Iowa, said his experience in private business made him the man to confront President Barack Obama in debates in the fall of 2012. "And I'll have credibility on the economy when he doesn't," he said.
Gingrich passed up an offer to criticize Romney on Medicare, instead complimenting his ideas for preserving the program.
Gingrich, Bachmann and Santorum weren't the only contenders eager to impress Iowa voters and a nationwide television audience with their conservative grit.
"I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, referring to the Denver Broncos quarterback whose passing ability draws ridicule but who has led his team to seven wins in eight weeks.
"We're getting screwed as Americans," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, insisting he was a steadier conservative than any of the others.
"Anybody up here could beat Obama," said Paul, whose views verge on libertarianism and who has struggled to expand his appeal.