JOHNSTON, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican presidential contenders took shots at China, budget deficits and the debate moderator but avoided attacking each other on Wednesday in their final encounter before Iowa kicks off the 2008 White House race on January 3.
In a debate that did not address hot campaign trail topics like the Iraq war and immigration, the Republicans found plenty of room for agreement on the need to rein in federal spending, bring down taxes and achieve energy independence.
The last Republican debate before Iowa opens the battle to choose candidates for the November 2008 election had a positive tone, producing few moments of disagreement and no criticism of fast-rising former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who now leads polls in the state.
The focus on economic issues gave the candidates a chance to lay out already published plans to ease growing public worries about the economy and reduce a federal debt they said was becoming a national security threat.
"Our country has a $9 trillion (4.4 billion pound) debt. A good chunk of that is owned by China. We're bankrupting the next generation, without any question," said Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and Hollywood actor.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has fallen behind Huckabee in Iowa polls after leading for months, said the future was bright and the country's leaders should not "wring their hands."
"We need leaders up in Washington that will rein in excessive spending," he said.
Huckabee, languishing in low single digits in polls until recently, has shot into the lead in Iowa in the last few weeks while gaining ground in some other polls nationally.
HUCKABEE'S RECORD NOT DEBATED
The rise of the former Baptist pastor, fuelled in part by growing support among religious conservatives, has brought a new wave of scrutiny and criticism over his record in Arkansas and his positions -- but not in Wednesday's debate.
There was no discussion of Huckabee's comments about Romney's Mormon religion in a New York Times magazine interview made public on Wednesday, in which he said he didn't know much about the religion but questioned: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
Huckabee appeared to make reference to the comments when he said during the debate his New Year's resolution would be to "be a lot more careful about what I say because I've found it gets amplified."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who leads national polls but has not campaigned hard in Iowa while focusing on later states, defended the city's handling of security expenses while he was mayor and was having an extramarital affair with his current wife.
He said he would run an open, transparent White House, adding: "On the issue of transparency, I can't think of a public figure that's had a more transparent life than I've had."
Some of the Republican contenders called for redoing trade deals with countries like China, saying they were leading to huge trade surpluses with the United States.
"We're going to have to renegotiate deals with people like those in China that manipulate their currency to put their products in advantage over ours," Romney said.
Arizona Senator John McCain played to the crowd in Iowa.
"I will open every market in the world to Iowa's agricultural products. I'm the biggest free marketer and free trader that you will ever see, and I will also eliminate subsidies on ethanol and other agricultural products," he said.
The debate included a few moments of insurrection against moderator Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines Register newspaper.
Thompson resisted when she asked for a show of hands on how many candidates believe global climate change was a serious threat, saying he wanted to be able to explain his answer.
"You want a show of hands. I'm not giving it to you," Thompson said.
(Editing by David Alexander)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)