12/16/2011 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2011

GOP Candidates Avoid Fireworks In Final Debate Before Iowa Caucuses

SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- No knockout punches. No game changers. No bloody corpses.

The final Republican presidential primary debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses was a safe affair, sort of like two boxers hugging one another to let the final few seconds of a long bout run out.

The seven contestants took some shots at one another, but were generally content to focus on their own message and move on to hitting the ground over the last three weeks before Iowans cast their votes.

The one candidate to get noticeably dinged up was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who came in to the night needing to stop the bleeding that he has suffered over the last several days. Gingrich's second debate as the primary frontrunner did not go as well as the first, which was just five days ago. But it also was not a dramatically bad night for him.

In particular, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney steered clear of the attacks he has personally launched on Gingrich in recent days, no doubt content to let the air war launched by a super PAC supporting him to continue tearing Gingrich apart.

But Gingrich was ripped during the debate by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), in particular, for his role in advising the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which paid him roughly $1.6 million over the better part of a decade.

"The speaker had his hand out and he was taking $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington, D.C.," Bachmann said. "That's absolutely wrong."

Gingrich defended his work as that of "a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business."

But Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) dismissed that definition, saying that work for Freddie Mac was "not a free market enterprise" and that "pure private enterprise" was "more close probably to what Gov. [Mitt] Romney is involved with." It was both a swipe at Gingrich and a small boost for Romney, who is running on his private sector credentials.

Gingrich, under assault a second time from Bachmann on the Freddie Mac issue, uttered an unusually defensive response. "I have never once changed my positions because of any kind of payment," he said.

Gingrich's idea to ignore some Supreme Court decisions, to eliminate some federal courts, and to bring some federal judges in front of Congress if their decisions were unsatisfactory to the other branches also got a full airing, as well as fulsome criticism from several of the other candidates.

And Gingrich suffered another blow Thursday when Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad raised questions about whether he is too erratic to be president.

"Whether he has the discipline and the focus, I don't know," Branstad told the Associated Press, noting that he likely will not endorse anyone before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Romney, who has seen his frontrunner status stolen by Gingrich for the last two weeks, was more self-assured than he was in the Dec. 10 debate, and scored some very strong points and got lots of crowd applause with two lines in particular hitting President Obama.

"Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he's president. It's not if I'm president," Romney said in response to a question about job creation.

And of Obama's request to Iran that the country return a downed U.S. drone, Romney said: "A foreign policy based on pretty please? You've got to be kidding."

Romney's lone weak moment came near the end when former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) accused Romney of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples during his time as governor. Romney disputed the charge, but Santorum's accusations were enough to raise doubts about yet another social values issue in the minds of Iowans.

Romney has spent much of the last several days on the attack against Gingrich in numerous media interviews, but there were virtually no fireworks between the two top contenders for the nomination on stage.

The only reference to Romney's attacks came when Gingrich said he was "very concerned about appearing not to be zany." Romney on Wednesday labeled the former speaker "zany" in an interview with The New York Times.

The most damaging attacks on Gingrich recently have come from a super PAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, which is spending $3.1 million to blanket Iowa TV screens with anti-Gingrich ads.

Gingrich tried to stay positive, at one point even complimenting Romney for his proposal on Medicare. But earlier in the day, Gingrich tried to use Romney's attacks against him. At a campaign stop in Fort Dodge, Gingrich told a few hundred Iowans that while he is "someone who is trying to help the country," the candidate attacking him is "someone who is just running a negative campaign."

A negative campaign, Gingrich said, "will just get people disgusted."

"I think a lot of the modern political system is frankly so negative and so destructive that it's no wonder that people get disgusted with the process," he said.

Romney preempted the negativity charge in part hours before the debate by releasing a positive 30-second ad that the campaign said will air in Iowa this week. The ad featured soft music and inspiring shots of families and young children, and managed to convey Romney talking passionately -- not an easy feat -- about a "moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in."

Gingrich said he learned an important lesson from the 1994 Contract with America, which he spearheaded as House speaker: "If you run a positive campaign with positive solutions, [voters will] turn out."

But in fact, Gingrich is on the hunt for cash, and appears to have landed a good amount of it from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Politico reported Thursday that Adelson, already a Gingrich backer, was preparing to give perhaps as much as $20 million to a super PAC supporting Gingrich.

The question is whether such a cash infusion, if it can even get TV ads on the air before Christmas, would be too late to make up for the damage Gingrich has suffered.