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Republican Debate: GOP Presidential Candidates Face Off Ahead Of 2012 Iowa Caucus (LIVE UPDATES)

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Seven candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination are facing off in a debate in Iowa on Thursday night.

The following contenders will share the stage in the Hawkeye State: U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Below, a live blog of the latest developments to unfold.

Newt Gingrich backed off one of the defining (and only) criticisms he has leveled at Mitt Romney during this presidential campaign, telling Fox News' Sean Hannity that the former Massachusetts governor "got under my skin."

Speaking after Thursday night's debate, the last before the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich called his attack on Romney for laying off people and closing companies while at the head of Bain Capital the type of line that "doesn't reflect my values."

"There was a very brief moment where, frankly, he got under my skin and I responded in a way that made no sense," said Gingrich. "I've said publicly he is a good manager, he is a good business manager. He got that round. If you are scoring rounds in boxing I will give that round to Mitt."

This might be a case of too little, too late for Gingrich. His attack on Romney's Bain tenure came in response to Romney's attacks on his profitable, quasi-lobbying work for Freddie Mac. But the line was poorly received by conservatives who argued that it echoed the type of charge Democrats would level in a general election.

Romney, too, said he fully expected President Obama to attack his Bain days should he end up the nominee. When asked by Hannity about Gingrich's mea culpa, he seemed to accept it.

"That’s very nice of him," he said in the post-debate forum. "I got broad shoulders and I can handle it. It is appropriate for us to talk about the various differences the candidates have."

-- Sam Stein

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In the post-debate spin room, Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Newt Gingrich about the tough attacks he received from Rep. Michele Bachmann during the debate. Bachmann went after the former House speaker for his consulting with Freddie Mac.

"I did notice that there were times that it seemingly was openings for people to go after you. They didn't take it. One person going after you more than anybody obviously was Michele Bachmann," Hannity said.

Gingrich responded by saying that everyone has "their own style," but then noting that there was "some genuine affection" among the candidates. He went on to make nice remarks about all of the other candidates who stood on the stage with him tonight, except Bachmann:

I really like Rick Perry, I really like Rick Santorum. I've known them a long time. Mitt and I have gotten to be much closer over the course of this. Jon Huntsman and I did a great debate last Monday in New Hampshire -- very substantive, a lot of fun. So there's a camaraderie building. I think the toughest ads against me are being run by Ron Paul. It's very hard to dislike Ron Paul. He is just sort of who he is. (LAUGHTER)

-- Amanda Terkel

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Chris Wallace served up the "you knew this was coming" question on Mitt Romney's history of flip-flops. Citing position switches on issues such as gay rights and abortion, he asked Romney if they were a matter of "principle or politics."

Romney cast his history on gay rights thusly: He was "firmly in support" of protecting the LGBT community from discrimination, but was never in favor of same-sex marriage. On the matter of abortion, he said he simply changed his mind on the matter, and that "every decision [he] made as governor was on the side of life."

Wallace persisted, pointing out this letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, in which Romney wrote, "I am more convinced than ever before that as we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent." Who happened to be Ted Kennedy. Romney continued to insist that the issue was discrimination, and that he was making the case that he was more capable of protecting the LGBT community from it than Kennedy.

In the letter, he never mentions gay marriage directly. However, it did include this: "I believe that the Clinton compromise ['don't ask, don't tell'] was a step in the right direction. I am also convinced that it is the first of a number of steps that will ultimately lead gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation's military. That goal will only be reached when preventing discrimination against gays and lesbians is a mainstream concern, which is a goal we share."

So Romney, to this day, is suggesting that "preventing discrimination against gays and lesbians is a mainstream concern" with a full throat. But on "don't ask, don't tell," Romney has not been speaking clearly. At a CNN debate, he told John King that "the answer is that 'don't ask, don't tell' should have been kept in place until conflict was over."

He also wasn't nearly as full-throated when the New Hampshire Union Leader gave him the opportunity to condemn the booing of a gay soldier that occurred at a previous debate:

ROMNEY: I don’t recall whether this soldier, whether people were booing his question or just booing…

UNION LEADER: They booed as soon as he identified as a gay person.

ROMNEY: You have to look at that. I don’t know when they booed and I don’t know why they booed. But I will tell you, that the boos and applause hasn’t always coincided with my own views, but I haven’t stepped in to try and say, ‘this one is right, this one is wrong.’ Instead, I focus on the things I think I will say.

UNION LEADER: I ask because Herman Cain over the weekend was asked about it and he said in effect that he should have criticized whoever was booing in the audience.

ROMNEY: That’s…I understand his thoughts.

-- Jason Linkins

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When running for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Mitt Romney said he could be more effective fighting for LGBT rights than his opponent, arguing, "When Ted Kennedy speaks on gay rights, he's seen as an extremist. When Mitt Romney speaks on gay rights, he's seen as a centrist and a moderate."

However, Romney does not believe that gay men and women should be able to get married. In tonight's debate, he argued that he nevertheless is a champion of LGBT rights.

I do not believe in discriminating against people based on sexual orientation. There are some people who do. I had a member of my administration, my Cabinet, who was gay. I didn't ask justices that I was looking to appoint, rather people who are applicants for the job, what their sexual orientation was. I believe as a Republican, I had the potential to fight for anti-discrimination in a way that would be better than Sen. Kennedy, the Democrat who was expected to do so. At the same time, Chris, in 1994, and throughout my career, I said I oppose same-sex marriage. Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. My view is...protect the sanctity of marriage, protect the sanctity of life.

-- Amanda Terkel

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Would everyone please just take Michele Bachmann's facts seriously? Bachmann seemed to grow a little weary of being told "over and over through the debate that I don't have my facts right," after Newt Gingrich, defending his own record on abortion and life, accused Bachmann of having her facts wrong.

"As a matter of fact, I do," Bachmann said. "I'm a serious candidate for president of the United States, and my facts are accurate."

Then she accused Gingrich of "tolerating infanticide."

-- Joshua Hersh

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Jon Huntsman went after his former boss, President Obama, tying his "failure" on the economy to lower levels of undocumented immigration. Essentially, he said the United States should be concerned when undocumented immigration is down, because it means that the economy is bad.

In terms of immigration, and illegal immigration, this president has so screwed up this economy, nobody is coming anymore. There is nothing to come for. There's not a problem today! Look at the numbers coming across. The numbers posted the other day -- lowest in four decades. So I say you know we have to secure the border, of course. We have to deal with the 11, 12 million people here. But let's not lose sight of the fact that legal immigration is an engine of growth for this country. Half of the Fortune 500 companies in this country today were founded by immigrants.

We have lost probably, well -- our market share of traveling tourism has gone from 7 percent to 12 percent because visa is screwed up in the nation. So you've got to look at the Department of Homeland Security. You've got to completely remake the way people are moving back and forth, our HB1 visa system, how we're dealing with the movement of people, how we're dealing with immigration. This is an economic development opportunity, and we are missing it.

-- Amanda Terkel

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@ howardfineman : Bachmann has been the strongest and most focused attacker against Newt. Naturally it wasn't Mitt.

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Rick Perry has always confronted a bit of difficulty in criticizing President Obama for not properly securing the U.S.-Mexico border. As governor of Texas, he also has some impact on that border (or at least he argues he does when he mentions the quasi army he has in the Texas national guard).

And on Thursday, while chastising the president for falsely claiming that the Texas part of the border was safer than it has ever been, he explicitly admitted that the state he leads is "not safe." Then, he proposed a modern Monroe Doctrine, which he has done before.

"Well, let me tell you, I've been dealing with this issue for 11 years," Perry said. "I've sent Texas Ranger recon teams there. Our law enforcement men and women face fire from across the border, or in the U.S. side, from the drug cartels. It is not safe there. Our country is in jeopardy. If we are going to be able to defend America, from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Hamas, that are using Mexico as a border, as a way to penetrate into the southern part of the United States, Venezuela has the largest Iranian embassy in the world there. We know what is going on. It is time for this country to have a real conversation about a Monroe Doctrine again like we did against the Cubans in the '60s."

-- Sam Stein

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@ howardfineman : Newt shades to the right on immigration, trying to correct his past list to the left and appeal to Tea Party.

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@ howardfineman : Newt wins additional points for being the first to mention the local congressman, GOP Rep. Steve King.

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@ jasoncherkis : Romney plan: Illegal immigrants would have to get in the back of the line. Would that line be in America? He never says.

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It's pretty fashionable to toss around claims that Keystone XL would create some significant number of jobs. The go-to figure tends to be 20,000, as Michele Bachmann said tonight. This is wrong:

A key question for the administration is how many jobs the Keystone XL project would create. TransCanada’s initial estimate of 20,000 — which it said includes 13,000 direct construction jobs and 7,000 jobs among supply manufacturers — has been widely quoted by lawmakers and presidential candidates.

[According to TransCanada chief executive Russ] Girling...the 13,000 figure was “one person, one year,” meaning that if the construction jobs lasted two years, the number of people employed in each of the two years would be 6,500. That brings the company’s number closer to the State Department’s; State says the project would create 5,000 to 6,000 construction jobs, a figure that was calculated by its contractor Cardno Entrix.

As for the 7,000 indirect supply chain jobs, the .9 billion already spent by TransCanada would reduce the number of jobs that would be created in the future. The Brixton Group, a firm working with opponents of the project, has argued that many of the indirect supply jobs would be outside the United States because about .7 billion worth of steel will be purchased from a Russian-owned mill in Canada.

To be clear, Bachmann is 100 percent correct when she describes President Obama's decision to kick the decision on Keystone to 2013 as a purely political one.

(This was all in response to a question asking Bachmann how long of a moratorium she would place on offshore drilling in the wake of a BP-style disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which she did not answer.)

-- Jason Linkins

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@ howardfineman : Poor Rick Santorum. He is a youthful looking guy who has to keep reminding people what he did years ago in the Senate. It doesn't compute.

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@ howardfineman : If you doubted that this weird, American Idol debate season was made for Newt, this debate ends it. He runs circles around the rest.

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Amid a lengthy back and forth over the proper way to handle a potential nuclear threat from Iran, Michele Bachmann drew the ire of official foreign policy strawman Ron Paul by stating categorically that a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report said Iran would have a nuclear bomb within months.

"That is not true, " Paul said. "They produced information that led you to believe that, but they have no evidence that there has been enrichment."

The IAEA report, which came out in early November, did claim that Iran could build a nuclear weapon within six months, but it notably did not include any "smoking gun" -- as one diplomat told the Los Angeles Times -- that Iran actually had any intention of doing so. Toss-up?

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@ howardfineman : Early bottom line: Newt does more than fine; Ron Paul mullah-izes himself; Romney, meh.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for an "over-fly zone" in Syria. There is no such thing as "over-fly zone." He quickly corrected himself and referred to it by the correct nomenclature, a "no-fly zone."

-- Amanda Terkel

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Mocking Mitt Romney for calling him "zany," Newt Gingrich meandered off of a question about the Keystone pipeline and the payroll tax cut to alert the debate moderators that he was self-editing.

"I sometime get accused of using language that's too strong. So I've been standing here editing," he said. "I'm very concerned about appearing not to be zany."

-- Sam Stein

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@ howardfineman : Newt shows that he has a sense of humor about himself, trying not to be "zany," and then hits it out of the park (for GOPers) on pipeline.

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"A strong military doesn't promote war," Romney said. Rather, it keeps other nations from threatening the United States. That's how he summed up his (hyper-Keynesian!) call for increased military spending on new naval vessels and increasing the number of troops. (He also suggested that all of these troops needed to be fully taken care of as veterans after their service.)

But if military spending is the answer, the problem should already be solved.

(Top 10 shares of world military expenditures, 2010.)

It would be useful to find out from Romney how he sees the future of U.S. military engagement -- would he continue a counter-insurgency strategy or switch to a counter-terror footing? Does he foresee extended land engagements? These are the questions that drive military budget decisions. It's not just a factor of outspending the rest of the world, which we are essentially already doing.

-- Jason Linkins

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Mitt Romney accused the president of inviting war with Iran by not pushing back strong enough against the country, presumably though more aggressive sanctions.

"Absolutely. Does timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people? Absolutely," Romney said. "A strong America - a strong America is the best ally peace has ever known."

The basis of the line was in the president's request, earlier this week, that Iran give back a downed CIA drone that had crashed in the country.

"He says pretty please?" Romney said, mocking the president's fairly mockable request. "A foreign policy based on pretty please? You've got to be kidding."

Romney went on to hit the usual notes, accusing Obama of believing that this was a post-America century and of having a mindset that led him to "appease or accommodate the tyrants of the world."

When these lines were used in the past, the president had a ready response: urging Romney and others to talk either to Osama bin Laden, the other assassinated al Qaeda leaders, or the few that remained alive.

-- Sam Stein

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@ jonward11 : Newt: "I'm very concerned about appearing not to be zany."

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@ howardfineman : why Jon Huntsman has no chance: he mentions George Kennan, as though anyone knew who George Kennan was.

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Pressed by Fox's Bret Baier to say how he would deal with conclusive evidence of a direct threat from Iran, Ron Paul refused to play ball, repeatedly saying that the U.S. should draw down its rhetoric and do anything possible to avoid a new war there.

"This is another Iraq coming," Paul warned. "This is war propaganda going on. And to me, the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact and we will soon bomb Iran."

It's not the first time Paul had called for caution on the nuclear threat from Iran, although he did especially emphasize that the evidence is not yet conclusive that the country has a nuke. Then he added: Even if they did, can you blame them?

"How do we treat people when they have a nuclear weapon? With a lot more respect. What did we do with Libya? We talked to them, we talked them out of their nuclear weapon, and then we killed them."

The lines drew some applause from the conservative audience in Iowa, but nothing like the wild cheers that greeted Rick Santorum when he said: "We should be planning a strike against their facilities, and say if you do not open up the facilities and not close them down, we will close them down for you."

-- Joshua Hersh

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@ howardfineman : The more Paul goes on and on as a pacifist isolationist -- the longer he talks, the better for Newt, who is off the stage and out of harm.

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@ howardfineman : Bachmann/Santorum go after Paul on Iran: The battle for the top of the second rung. Ron makes it clear: he doesn't want Iran to have a nuke.

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@ jonward11 : Bachmann: "I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one I just heard from ron paul" – applause & some boos

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Thanks to GAPolitico for a reminder:

The relevant text: "The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day."

More here.

-- Jason Linkins

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@ jonward11 : Romney again scoring points hitting Obama

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Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went off on the American judicial system, saying courts have become "grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful and ... frankly arrogant in their misreading of the American people."

He applied a harsh litmus test to the types of judges who should be on the bench, saying that ones who believe the phrase "One nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the separation of church and state are "radically Anti-American" and should not be wearing the robe. He suggested that the Ninth Circuit, which is known as one of the most liberal circuits in the country, should be abolished.

"I taught a short course in this at the University of Georgia Law School, and I testified in front of sitting justices at Georgetown Law School and I warned them, 'You keep attacking the core base of the American exceptionalism, and you will find an uprising against you which will rebalance the judiciary.' We have a balance of three branches -- not a judicial dictatorship in this country. ... I will be prepared to take on the judiciary if it in fact did not restrict itself in what it was doing."

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said she agreed with Gingrich that the judiciary has become too powerful. She said it was up to Congress and the president to take the power back.

"Because now we have gotten to the point where we think the final arbiter of law is the court system. It isn't. The intention of the founders was that the courts would be the least powerful system of government. And if we give to the courts the right to make law, then the people will have lost their representation. They need to hold onto their representation."

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) also advocated against abolishing courts and allowing Congress to subpoena judges to account for their decisions, as Gingrich suggested, saying it may "open up a can of worms."

"Yes, we are frustrated with this," he said. "But the whole thing is if you just say, 'Well, we are going to -- okay, there are 10 courts. Let's get rid of three this year because they ruled a way we didn't like.' That to me is, I think, opening up a can of worms for us and would lead to trouble. But I really, really question this idea that the Congress could subpoena judges and bring them before us. That is a real affront to the separation of the powers."

-- Amanda Terkel

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