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SIOUX CITY, Iowa - A week that began with the notion that back-from-the-dead candidate Newt Gingrich could be on his way to clinching the Republican nomination, ends largely where this race has been all along.
Mitt Romney - unpalatable as he may be to some voters, especially here in Iowa - seems to be the candidate with the tightest grip on the GOP nod. Romney appears to be the candidate most likely to benefit from a debate that featured much less hand-to-hand combat with Gingrich than we've seen on the campaign trail recently.
And Romney's icing on the cake came in the form of a major endorsement he is picking up today in South Carolina - that of the state's influential governor, Nikki Haley. Her reason for backing the former Massachusetts governor is simple, Haley said in an appearance on Fox News this morning: "What I want is someone who is not part of the chaos," of Washington.
On the debate stage in Sioux City last night, both Romney and Gingrich turned down numerous opportunities to skewer each other, deciding instead to focus on their own closing arguments to voters less than three weeks before this state's Jan. 3 caucuses. It wasn't for the moderators' lack of trying. http://abcn.ws/ufQmhw
When Gingrich was confronted with Romney's recent critique of him as an "unreliable leader in the conservative movement," the former House Speaker simply dismissed his rival's words as "laughable."
"It's sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30-year record of conservatism, is somehow not a conservative?" Gingrich said without ever mentioning Romney's name.
Romney also passed up several chances to inject the ferocity with which he has been hammering Gingrich on the campaign trail into the discussion.
It was unclear whether Romney stayed away from attacking Gingrich because he was worried it would backfire or because his campaign is convinced the former House Speaker is already sliding or because he knew that several of the other candidates on the stage, namely Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, would step into lead the anti-Gingrich charge.
Who won and who lost? Here's ABC Political Director Amy Walter's breakdown:
Mitt Romney: Mitt Romney: He was cool, calm and collected. No $10,00 bets or "reach out and touch someone" moments. If Gingrich voters are looking for an alternative, Romney wants to welcome them in with open arms.
Michele Bachmann: Bachmann came out swinging. And it was Newt Gingrich who felt her fury, as she challenged him on issues ranging from his consultancy work for Freddie Mac to his record on abortion. If Bachman could translate the energy she has on stage to support on the ground, she could be a contender.
Ron Paul: Texas Rep. Ron Paul was energized, engaged and articulate. He looked and acted like a frontrunner. This was probably his best performance yet.
Rick Perry: He didn't flub anything, but he didn't do anything big either. Perry needs a game changing moment to get him into the top tier in Iowa. He didn't make that happen tonight.
Newt Gingrich: He didn't stumble in any of his answers, but he didn't shine either. Newt needs energy and enthusiasm behind him for the next 19 days. This wasn't the kind of performance that keeps the troops fired up or keeps wavering supporters on board.
Fox Moderators: they were well-prepared, asked good questions and were judicious with the time clock. But, try as they might, they couldn't get these candidates to really engage on another.
ABC's Shushannah Walshe contributed reporting.
MORE ON PAUL'S PREDICAMENT: The reason Ron Paul is doing well in place like Iowa but won't be able to make it much farther was highlighted last night. His exchange with Bachmann over Iran and nuclear weapons showed him to be far out of the mainstream of GOP orthodoxy. But, in Iowa, where caucus is open to all-comers, not just registered Republicans, Paul can put together a coalition of traditional Libertarian Republicans and dovish independents as well as college students.
HOW THE DEBATE PLAYED:
The New York Times: "The leading Republican presidential candidates largely shelved their contentious attacks on one another to deliver their closing arguments on Thursday night at the final debate before the nominating contests begin, but Newt Gingrich did not escape sharp questions about his record in and out of government and his ability to defeat President Obama." -Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg
The Des Moines Register: "A congenial Newt Gingrich defended government aid, waxed on about the beauty of bipartisanship, complimented chief rival Mitt Romney, and, in keeping with his promise not to tussle with his fellow Republicans, saved his fire in Thursday night's GOP debate for the Democratic resident of the White House." -Jennifer Jacobs
The Washington Post: "The questions highlighted the choice GOP voters will face as they start the process of selecting a presidential nominee in January: whether Romney can be trusted to lead a party that has become more conservative in recent years versus whether Gingrich has the discipline and consistency to carry the Republican banner." -Dan Balz and Philip Rucker
The Sioux City Journal: "'Bachmann was aggressive, I know everyone's talking about that, but I think we have to wonder is she doing the job of knocking people down - I think she's doing a really good job of that - but is she building herself up?" said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican news site, who watched at the downtown Sioux City Convention Center Thursday night.'" -Mike Wiser
The Los Angeles Times: "Acting on their best behavior, the two Republican front-runners essentially called a cease-fire Thursday night in their fratricidal primary fight, using the last full-scale presidential debate of the year mainly to assail President Obama. A few heated exchanges marked the two-hour debate, but they were largely spurred by those struggling to catch up to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in opinion polls." -Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta
SPIN ROOM: Romney senior strategist Eric Fehrnstrom on Gingrich: "It sounded like he was trying to win tenure, and not trying to win the presidency."
Former Iowa Congressman Fred Grandy ("The Love Boat's" Gopher): "The reason I am out here and speaking for Newt is I am a little put off by sitting members of congress and former members of congress who are taking it upon themselves the somehow suggest he may not be the right leader."
THE NOTE'S QUOTE: "There are a lot of folks that said Tim Tebow wasn't going to be a very good NFL quarterback," Rick Perry said at last night's debate. "There are people that stood up and said well he doesn't have the right throwing mechanisms or he doesn't, you know he's not playing the game right, and you know, he won two national championships and that looked pretty good, and we were the national champions in job creation back in Texas, and so but am I ready for the next level? Let me tell ya, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses."
NIKKI HALEY GETS BEHIND ROMNEY. Mitt Romney, who is campaigning in Iowa this morning before heading to South Carolina scored a major endorsement: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. In an appearance on "Fox and Friends" this morning, Haley said she chose Romney because "what I want is someone who is not part of the chaos," of Washington. Haley said she was heavily courted by all of the GOP candidates except for Ron Paul. "It is an honor to have the endorsement of Governor Haley," Romney said in a statement. "As a successful businesswoman who entered public service so government could better serve the people, Governor Haley's career-long efforts to reform government, make government more accountable to the taxpayers, and fight wasteful spending should be examples for leaders across the country."
NOTABLE: "The Romney campaign considered Ms. Haley's endorsement such a big deal that they chartered a plane from Iowa to South Carolina, to make sure members of the national media would make it there for her afternoon announcement," reports The New York Times' Ashley Parker. http://nyti.ms/tBVFET
@ fivethirtyeight : Nikki Haley endorsement is a big one for Romney. Decent chance that IA/NH outcome will be muddled, giving SC more importance.
@TheFix : Nikki Haley endorsement of Romney is a big deal nationally but not sure it makes him a major player in SC.
FRESH FROM THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN. The day after the U.S. marked the official end to the war in Iraq, President Obama's re-election campaign released a new video called: "Ending the War in Iraq: A Promise Kept": "This month, President Obama is making good on his promise to bring the last American troops home from Iraq in time for the holidays. Here's a look at the President's record on the war in Iraq - from his time as a state senator through the end of this nine-year conflict." http://bit.ly/vS7b2w
A STEP BACK FROM THE BRINK OF GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN. "Congressional leaders-fearful of voters' wrath over Washington's bickering and brinkmanship-stepped back Thursday from a possible government shutdown, clearing the way for at least a short-term extension of a payroll tax cut that is set to expire at year's end," the Wall Street Journal's Janet Hook and Naftali Bendavid report. "The shift marked a dizzying change in tone from the contentious atmosphere that prevailed just a day earlier. Republican and Democratic leaders returned to the bargaining table and struck a deal on a $1 trillion spending bill to keep the government operating after Friday. A deal was harder to come by on Congress' second quest, which is to agree on a yearlong extension of the payroll tax cut and of expiring unemployment benefits. But the chances of keeping the tax cut in place at least temporarily improved as Democratic officials said they were preparing a fall back to a two-month extension if they fail to reach a longer-term agreement in the coming days." http://on.wsj.com/v15Oxy
RUMORS OF $20 MILLION GINGRICH SUPER PAC INVESTMENT GREATLY EXAGGERATED. "A spokesman for a Las Vegas casino billionaire and a super PAC official are denying a published report that the billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, has committed $20 million to the super PAC, Time for Newt, which supports Newt Gingrich," ABC's Elicia Dover notes. Charlie Smith, founder and president of Time for Newt and the group behind it, Solutions 2012, denied this morning's report of the commitment by Politico. Though Adelson and his wife did give the maximum $2,500 each to the Gingrich campaign, Smith said it would be 'very out of character for Mr. Adelson to announce something like this to the press.' … A spokesman for Adelson, Ron Reese, told ABC News the report of the $20 million donation is false and he does not know the source of the claim." http://abcn.ws/uM4RZJ
SANTORUM LAUNCHES FIRST TV AD. From ABC's Shushannah Walshe: On the same day a SuperPAC launched to boost Rick Santorum and announced it is even running a television ad in this state, the Santorum campaign itself has launched its own television ad, the first for the campaign. Titled "Sing, Sing, Sing," the ad goes on the air Thursday evening here. The TV spot touts his conservative background and the praise-not endorsements-he's received from conservative leaders over video footage of Santorum with his wife and seven children. "A loving husband, a devoted father, homeschooler and a man of deep faith. He wrote the law that banned partial birth abortions. Overhauled America's welfare system," a narrator reads. " And no one has done more to protect America from Iran's growing threat than Rick Santorum. It's no wonder Palin, Beck and Huckabee are singing his praises." http://abcn.ws/vQ5vV4
RICK PERRY O.K. WITH FOURTH PLACE FINISH IN IOWA. A dispatch from ABC's Arlette Saenz: Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested today that he might come in as low as fourth place in the Iowa caucuses next month, but said that won't stop him from competing in other states. "You'll still see me in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida," Perry said of a fourth place finish during an interview on Fox News' Your World With Cavuto. "Winning Iowa is obviously a help to anybody," Perry said. "You want to win here, but you don't have to." Perry said voters in Iowa are the same as those in New Hampshire and South Carolina looking to meet the candidates up close and personal. "They want to touch you, feel you, and sniff on ya," Perry said. http://abcn.ws/rB3mX8
FOR ROMNEY, WITH LOVE AND SQUALOR. ABC's Jake Tapper reports: "The day after his ill-conceived $10,000 wager at the ABC News debate, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told attendees at a Hudson, NH, town hall meeting that about his more modest days as a Mormon missionary in France. 'You know, you're not living high on the hog at that kind of level,' said Romney, who acknowledged that France was not 'a third-world country: but painted a rather stark picture. … 'Most of the apartments I lived in had no shower, or bathtub. In some cases, there were buildings that had showers. You go in, you pay a couple of Francs and you could get a shower,' he added. … But today the UK's Daily Telegraph paints a different picture of Romney's time in gay Paris, writing that "a significant portion of his 30-month mission in a Paris mansion described by fellow American missionaries to The Daily Telegraph as a 'palace.' It featured stained glass windows, chandeliers, and an extensive art collection. It was staffed by two servants - a Spanish chef and a houseboy. Although he spent time in other French cities, for most of 1968, Mr. Romney lived in the Mission Home, a 19th century neoclassical building in the French capital's chic 16th arrondissement." http://abcn.ws/tMaROo
BEHIND THE NEWT GINGRICH-RON PAUL FEUD. ABC's Jason Volack has the backstory: "Bad blood between the two men dates back to 1995, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich worked unsuccessfully to deny Paul a Texas House seat in a bitter primary battle that pitted Paul against a Gingrich-backed, Democrat-turned-Republican opponent. 'He orchestrated a million-dollar campaign to keep me out of Congress,' Paul told the Houston Chronicle at the time. When Newt Gingrich took over as speaker of the House in 1994, he pursued a policy of enticing Democratic incumbents into the Republican fold to guarantee passage of GOP legislation. A deal was struck whereby Rep. Greg Laughlin switched parties in June 1995 in return for the Ways and Means seat he had been counting on before the Democrats lost power. At the same time, Paul re-entered politics to run in Texas' 14th congressional race, setting up a primary battle between he and Laughlin." http://abcn.ws/tfvesk
@ EamonJavers : RIP Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. Brilliant man, brilliant life.
- Mitt Romney will discuss jobs and the economy with supporters and employees at Missouri Valley Steel in Sioux City, Iowa. The campaign will then head south, where Romney will hold an afternoon rally at the Boiling Springs Fire Station in Greenville, South Carolina.
- Rick Perry will continue his campaign bus tour through Iowa, with stops in Cherokee and Storm Lake.
- Michele Bachmann will kick off her own bus tour through all 99 of Iowa's counties in Sioux City with a media availability. The tour will make additional stops in Le Mars, Orange City, Rock Rapids, Sibley, Primghar, Cherokee and Storm Lake.
- Rick Santorum will attend an evening house party hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition in Sioux City, Iowa.
- Ron Paul will be a guest on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
-ABC's Joanna Suarez
Check out The Note's Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
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