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Politics | Seven GOP hopefuls battle for airtime in the final debate before the Iowa caucus

Rick Perry likes the sound of a comeback when counted out. "I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses."

Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, was, for many, a last look at the candidates until the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. Knowing that, the GOP hopefuls routinely pressed for extra seconds, while Fox News viewers heard a persistent electronic chirp late in their answers. Newt Gingrich, deemed the frontrunner although a Rasmussen poll has Mitt Romney back on top here in a tight race, was in the center of the seven-candidate lineup.

Romney chose to debate as a frontrunner, avoiding the launch of heavy attacks on Gingrich. Michele Bachmann seized that riskier role, accusing Gingrich of "influence-peddling" for Freddie Mac, with much of the back-and-forth shown on split screen. Gingrich twice responded to her attacks by saying she had trouble with the facts. Bachmann took offense: "I am a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate."

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If numerous polls are accurate, Perry and Bachmann-with very different debate tactics-are elbowing for fourth place. Time is running short for one of them to create separation and remain relevant after caucus night. Perry had one of his highlights right at the start, saying with a mix of swagger and self-deprecation that he's starting to like these debates. Bachmann, unable to keep pace with Perry in Iowa advertising airtime, sought a memorable moment by tangling with Ron Paul, pinpointing his foreign policy on Iran as "dangerous."

Paul, a top-three contender in Iowa and New Hampshire, differs with both parties, saying one wants welfare and one wants warfare. As a different kind of president, he promised not to look for more power. "We don't need another war," he said, insisting that the United States is on course to overreact to Iran. Rick Santorum, getting less airtime at one end of the stage, took the opposite view: "They've been at war with us since 1979."

Gingrich's opening pitch to the energetic crowd was a promise that he can ably debate President Obama, forcing him to defend "a record that is terrible and an ideology that is radical." Gingrich adamantly defended his conservatism with a deluge of statistics from his time as speaker of the House, but moments later Paul-whose campaign has produced stinging advertising attacks on Gingrich's record-goaded him into defending government-sponsored enterprises.

Romney defended himself from jabs at his job-creating record with Bain Capital, saying he learned not only from his successes, but also his failures in investments in 100 companies. "In the real world, some things don't make it." He was also given extended time to insist he had always opposed same-sex marriage, over Santorum's disagreement, and that he came to his pro-life position over time.

Jon Huntsman made a rare Iowa appearance, though he has not attempted to compete here. Often considered the most moderate in the race, he touted tax cuts and promises delivered as governor of Utah, called himself the consistent conservative, and took pride in his refusal to sign pledges.

The debate lacked any historic Reaganesque one-liners, and as such is unlikely to cause dramatic shakeups in the batting order approaching the final fortnight.

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