It isn't quite fourth and one with seconds on the clock, but for political conservatives, Thursday night's final Republican presidential primary debate had all the markings of a close competition in a tight second half.
With less than three weeks to go before Iowa Republicans caucus to pick their nominee in the 2012 presidential election season, the GOP hopefuls presented their late-game playbook at Fox News' debate in Sioux City, Iowa.
Having largely mapped out their policies and philosophies in more than a dozen pre-season debates, the candidates on Thursday night set out to prove that not only are they the best pick for primary-goers, but they are ready to be recruited for the first-string -- a general election contest to defeat the current occupant of the White House.
"I'm ready for the next level. Let me tell you, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucus," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said of the underestimated Denver Broncos quarterback.
"I don't want to run the world. I don't want to police individual activities or people's lifestyle, and I don't want to run the economy," said Texas Rep. Ron Paul, in what might be described as a lateral approach to the nomination.
But if electability had been the question for primary candidates in 1979, Ronald Reagan would have never become president, Newt Gingrich argued Thursday, saying that his debating skills against President Obama will outshine any earlier fouls he has made.
Gingrich's performance is being closely watched as he surges to the top of the field -- and faces questions about whether he is conservative enough for the GOP base.
He says yes -- and points to a 90 percent conservative voting record while a member of Congress, including four years as speaker of the House. But Rick Santorum, who was elected to the Senate in the 1994 Republican Revolution, said Gingrich faced a "conservative revolution" from within his own ranks while he was speaker.
The former speaker was also challenged on his taking $1.6 million from mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he left office. Gingrich insisted he did no lobbying but Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said that at that salary, there's little difference between the technical definition of lobbying and "influence peddling."
While Gingrich was put on the defensive early in the game, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist, ran with his record, saying he'll rely on his time as a businessman to build credibility on the economy where Obama cannot.
Romney said it's merely a question of comparing his own record as a CEO to that of Obama's as president.
"How did you do when you were running General Motors," Romney said he would ask the president, referring to Obama's decision to offer billions in government loans and close dealerships and factories in order to keep the automaker from going into bankruptcy.
"We have a president who, again, doesn't understand how the economy works," said Romney, adding that Obama has tried to pick winners in the energy sector.
"Not every business succeeds. ... In the real world, some things don't make it," he said.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, insisting that he, in fact, was a steadier conservative than any of the others on stage, though not one who would "contort himself into a pretzel," tried a direct appeal for trying a new and different direction.
"We're getting screwed as Americans," he said.
In the free-wheeling and rapid debate, the candidates talked debt, leadership style and what they described as the president's shortcomings.
They also hit on foreign and energy policy as well as the judiciary.
Gingrich -- asked to respond to former George W. Bush Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, who criticized a 28-page plan by Gingrich to reform the judiciary -- said the Bush officials were "behaving exactly like law schools."
But Americans can't let them "over-dictate to the rest of us."
Gingrich has called for a new policy toward the judiciary -- one that requires judges to explain themselves to Congress after a controversial ruling as well as possibly get the boot for bad decisions.
Called "dangerous," "ridiculous," and "outrageous" by the attorneys general, Gingrich asked whether the two lawyers questioned Thomas Jefferson's decision to abolish 18 of 35 federal judges. He defended his proposal by quoting Jefferson: "Is the Supreme Court supreme? That is absurd, that would be an oligarchy."
Gingrich found sportsmanlike support for that argument
"Where it needs to end is under the Constitution of the United States," Bachmann said of judicial interpretation and the courts' predilection toward making activist decisions.
Bachmann also blamed Congress and the president for having "failed to take their authority." She said that Iowans in particular have demonstrated how to make judicial oversight work since they recalled three judges who ruled to allow same-sex marriage in the state against voter will.
"If we give to the courts the right to make law, then the people will have lost their representation. They need hold to their representation, That's why I commend Iowans, because they chose not to retain three judges," she said.
On foreign policy, Bachmann sparred with Paul's laissez-faire approach to Iran, saying that she has "never heard a more dangerous answer" than that from Paul, who rejected a U.N. agency's report that Iran had returned to pursuing nuclear weapons after the program was declared dead in 2007.
Rather than focus on his primary foes, Romney once slammed Obama, who recently requested the return an unmanned spy drone that went astray and was captured by the Iranians.
"Timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people," Romney said. "This is a president, the spy drone being brought down, he says 'pretty please'? A foreign policy based on pretty please? You got to be kidding."
The options are to destroy or go in and get the drone, added Perry. Instead, Obama "took a third route, which is the worst and the weakest, and that is to do nothing."
As for foreign policy closer to home, Perry and Santorum agreed they'd ask their own attorney general to resign if he didn't know about an operation like Fast and Furious, the botched gun-running program under the Obama administration that resulted in guns reaching Mexican drug cartels.
Gingrich, Bachmann and others also criticized Obama for the decision to hold off the Keystone XL pipeline, a transnational project from Canada to Texas that supporters say will create 20,000 jobs and opponents say is a risk to a massive aquifer that supplies water throughout Nebraska. Republicans lawmakers had tied the pipeline to the president's proposal to extend the payroll tax cut for another year, but Obama said he'd veto it.
"I'm not going to veto middle class tax cuts to protect left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco so that we're going to kill American jobs, weaken American energy, make us more vulnerable to the Iranians and do so in a way that makes no sense to any normal rational American," Gingrich said.
While the debate was full of attacks and counterattacks among the candidates, they said they were not violating Reagan's 11th Commandment -- to not target fellow Republicans. Most of the candidates said they can take it, and dish it out. Romney said he'd reserve his biggest criticism for Obama. Paul said it was the job of the candidates to point out nuances and mistakes from their opponents that the media miss.