Updated: 11:24 p.m. ET
NBC's David Gregory talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer about Thursday's Republican debate, a final chance for the candidates to connect with Iowa voters before they cast the first crucial votes in the GOP contest.
As seven Republican presidential contenders began their sprint toward the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, each of the top candidates ran through a gauntlet of challenges in their Thursday night debate.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came under fire from Rep. Michele Bachmann, R- Minn., for his consulting work for the government-sponsored enterprise Freddie Mac. Gingrich made more than $1.6 million for his Freddie Mac work.
As he has in previous debates Gingrich said that he had done no lobbying for the agency and that his consulting work was simply a private business endeavor.
But Gingrich won big applause from the crowd in Sioux City, Iowa when he accused President Obama of caving in to “left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco” by refusing to approve the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada.
Bachmann sharply criticized Rep Ron Paul, R- Texas for saying that there was no evidence that Iran is close to building a nuclear weapon, dismissing it as “war propaganda.” Such thinking, said Paul, “is how we got into that useless war in Iraq.”
“I have never heard a more dangerous answer,” said Bachmann.
This prompted Paul to defend himself by saying, “I don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon” -- although earlier in the debate he’d said he could understand why the Tehran regime, surrounded by nuclear-armed powers, would want to acquire nuclear weapons.
For his part, Mitt Romney turned much of his fire on President Obama, assailing him for asking the government of Iran to return the CIA drone that crashed on Iranian territory. "A foreign policy based on 'pretty please?' You’ve gotta be kidding," Romney said.
He accused Obama of thinking that “if we appease or accommodate the tyrants of the world, that the world will be safer.”
Late in the debate, Romney came under repeated questioning from the moderator for supporting gay rights when he was governor of Massachusetts. Romney said he opposed same-sex marriages but also opposed discrimination against anyone based on their sexual orientation.
Earlier in the debate Gingrich warned against “judicial dictatorship” and defended his plan to subpoena federal judges to testify about some of their controversial rulings.
He compared himself to Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt as presidents who had tried to limit the power of federal judges. (Roosevelt’s plan to expand the size of the Supreme Court was defeated in 1937.)
Paul called Gingrich’s proposal “a real affront to the separation of powers.”
In an unexpected sign of détente between Gingrich and Romney, Gingrich praised Romney for helping to inspire the bipartisan Medicare redesign that was proposed Thursday by Housed Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Ore.
Gingrich denied that he had specifically criticized Ryan by name when he said on Meet the Press in May that Ryan’s previous Medicare reform plan was “right-wing social engineering.”
Although turnout at the caucuses is small relative to states such as Florida that have primaries, the outcome in Iowa will define the race and seems likely to winnow out some of the Republican hopefuls who fail to finish in top four.
In 2008, about 118,000 Iowa Republicans took part in the caucuses. Mike Huckabee, the ex-governor of Arkansas, defeated Romney in Iowa, hobbling Romney as headed into the New Hampshire primary the following week.
With the social conservatives’ votes split among Bachmann, Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, some Iowa Republican activists sense that Paul has a good chance to win the caucuses, due to the intensity of his supporters and the mobilization efforts they have made.
Striving to head off a win by Gingrich in Iowa, Romney on Wednesday played on the theme of the former House speaker’s penchant for exotic ideas.
“Zany is great in a campaign,” Romney told the New York Times. “It’s great on talk radio. It’s great in print, it makes for fun reading, but in terms of a president, we need a leader, and a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together.”
Gingrich got a good laugh from the crowd at Thursday night's debate when he said, in a humorous prelude to his Keystone pipeline comments, "I sometimes get accused of using language that is too strong, so I've been standing here editing -- and I am very concerned about not appearing to be zany."