This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," December 17, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the GOP candidates square off in their last debate before the Iowa caucuses. Was it a game changer?
And with polls tightening, the two frontrunners spar over their private business experience. We'll take a closer look at Newt Gingrich's dealing with Freddie Mac and Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital. Are the attacks fair? And how big a vulnerability will they be in a general election?
Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.
The GOP candidates squared off Thursday night in their last debate before the Iowa caucuses. With a new poll showing Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul locked in a close race for first place. Some of the lower-tier candidates tried to galvanize last-minute support and make a final impression on Iowa voters.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-TEXAS: I'm kind of getting where I like these debates. And as a matter of fact, I hope Obama and I debate a lot. And I'll get there early.
And we'll get it on. And we will talk about our differences, which are great. Let me tell you, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.
FMR. GOV. JON HUNTSMAN, R-UTAH: I think people, Neil, are coming around to finding that I mean the consistent conservative in race.
They're coming around to find that I'm not going to pander. I'm not going to contort myself into a pretzel to please any audience I'm in front of. And I'm not going to sign those silly pledges. And you know what else? I'm not going to show up at a Donald Trump debate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: So did they succeed? Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; and editorial board members, Jason Riley and Dorothy Rabinowitz.
So, Dan, did the debate do anything in your mind to change the fundamental contours of this race?
DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: I don't think so, Paul. I mean, I believe that the race is now between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, with Ron Paul probably playing the role of a spoiler. The others simply didn't perform strongly enough. They would have had to knock it out of the park.
That said, Rick Perry can stay in this race. Unlike the others, he does have money and money matters. He gave up a pretty credible performance and didn't blow himself up. But I think at this point it's pretty much congealing around Romney and Gingrich.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Yes, I think that's true. But I think that they all of them did show something quite definitive about themselves. It was fascinating. You did see that Santorum is innately depressed.
And you can see it from the lack of fight. Whereas, compared especially to Michele, who just went at it like the Energizer Bunny and couldn't be stopped. And that is impressive. And you see Huntsman, who is in a realm all by himself, talking about transactional matters. And we're, what?
GIGOT: Hey, I like the flat tax that he passed in Utah.
RABINOWITZ: That's good.
GIGOT: And I think his tax reform plan is pretty darn good.
RABINOWITZ: Paul, there is some problem every time a politician says, I'm not going to pander. You go, oh.
JASON RILEY, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: I though Michele Bachmann had a pretty good debate. I mean, for the second debate in a row I think she punched above her weight. And I think Newt Gingrich's weakest moment of the debate was responding to Michele Bachmann's charges over Freddie Mac. And so, I think she exposed some vulnerabilities there in the frontrunners.
But I think you're right, by and large, the frontrunners pretty much laid off one another and let the second-tier candidates go after them.
GIGOT: I want to deal with each of those questions separately. Michele Bachmann did attack, and effectively in some areas, against Newt Gingrich, I would agree. But did she make the case affirmatively for herself? That's the question I have. She needs -- I know, she needs strategically not to knock Gingrich down so she can do well in Iowa and move on past that. She has to do relatively well in Iowa.
HENNINGER: I don't think so. It's been very odd to me that Bachmann, Santorum and even Huntsman, the way that they come out debate after debate, and there's a sense that they're a little disorganized in the theme.
GIGOT: Well, her them is that everybody is disqualified as conservatives and she the only conservative. But she doesn't seem to --
HENNINGER: So what?
GIGOT: Yes, that --
HENNINGER: The American people are upset about several things. Nine percent unemployment, an economy that's dead in the water and whether their taxes are going to be raised or not. None of those subjects really came up in the debate. And so, they're -- Santorum and Bachmann and Huntsman are trying to present other reasons why they should be supported. At some point, you have to connect with the concerns of the American people.
GIGOT: How well did Gingrich defend himself? Do you think he did --