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Defining moments

Politics | Six GOP hopefuls try to grab the attention of Iowans in a nationally televised debate

DES MOINES, Iowa-Just in case people didn't catch it, Michele Bachmann stated her combination of the GOP frontrunners' names five times: "Newt Romney."

The wordplay was an attempt to link her two leading rivals for the Republican nomination-Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney-to the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a Barack Obama policy despised by the GOP base. The line, likely the most memorable of the debate, was new phrasing but an expected line of attack, and both candidates have well-rehearsed answers.

Romney insists his Massachusetts program differs from the new federal law because it did not raise taxes or affect the 92 percent who already had insurance. Gingrich says the context of his thinking was the effort to draw up an alternative to Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan of the early 1990s. Bachmann and the other Republican hopefuls say they can be better trusted to repeal the healthcare law that was passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress of President Obama's first two years in office. Romney even offered a $10,000 bet to Rick Perry that Perry wasn't accurately quoting Romney's book on his support for trying the Massachusetts plan in other states. Each of the candidates insisted that they would repeal Obamacare.

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Held just 24 days before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, the ABC News debate featured the candidates spending much of the time lobbing attacks and defending track records. Much of the focus centered on Gingrich and Romney, as rivals sought to define them on inconsistencies and moderators George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer gave them 30-second responses each time.

Perry also had a strategy to garner attention: name-dropping Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad (as did Gingrich) and conservative Rep. Steve King. Perry also stepped to Gingrich's defense after a lengthy Romney-Gingrich dialogue over Gingrich's recent statement that the Palestinians are an "invented" people. Romney sought to pin it to Gingrich's reputation for impulsive statements, questioning whether it was helpful to the Israelis, while Gingrich said it was Reaganite truth-telling. Perry's line concluded the dust-up: "This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said."

Ron Paul used that same question to warn against being the world's police force. "Soon we'll have to quit because we're flat-out broke," he said.

Bachmann, in a night that gained her more attention than some of the recent debates, also made an open play for previous backers of former candidate Herman Cain, twice bringing up his name. Cain still had 8 percent support in the most recent Des Moines Register poll.

The moderators asked if marital fidelity should be considered in a presidential campaign, then went to each of the candidates, with Gingrich last. Gingrich-as he has before-acknowledged mistakes from his past, said he had sought forgiveness, and noted he is now a grandfather. Calling it a "real issue," he said people would have to render judgment.

Perry made the strongest statement, noting that someone who would cheat on a spouse might cheat on a business partner. He also had an applause line here, saying his wedding vow was both to his wife and to God. "That's pretty heavy-lifting in my book," he said, adding that it was even bigger than "a handshake in Texas."

"I don't think [character] should necessarily be something you have to talk about; I think it should show through," said Paul, citing the fact he sometimes is the lone "no" vote in the entire U.S. House of Representatives.

Pressed to cite his differences with Gingrich, Romney said the most significant difference is his background in the private sector. Gingrich pointed out that had Romney beaten Sen. Edward Kennedy in an election 17 years ago, he too would have been a career politician. Romney laughed it off saying he never made it into the NFL to be a career football player either. The debate's various exchanges between the two appeared to leave Gingrich's frontrunner status largely undamaged just two weeks before Christmas turns Iowans' attentions away from politics for the final week.

With Cain out of the race and Jon Huntsman not on stage, just six candidates made their case for support in the nationally televised debate.

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