Mitt Romney had a strong performance Thursday night in the final debate before the January 3 Iowa caucuses. From Medicare reform to foreign policy to the economy, Romney provided mostly succinct answers within the mainstream of Republican ideas. And because he did not spend much time engaging his opponents, he also avoided missteps like his infamous “$10,000 bet” with Rick Perry at last week’s debate.

Referring to Newt Gingrich’s assertion that Romney ought to return the money he earned working for Bain Capital, Chris Wallace asked Romney if he would be vulnerable to such attacks in the general election. Romney didn’t take the bait and instead turned the question into a criticism of President Obama’s understanding of the economy. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” he said. “I think the president’s going to level the same attack.”

Romney went on to defend the risks and rewards of free market capitalism, citing his own successes and failures in business. On the other hand, he argued, Obama doesn’t understand that the nature of free markets is that some business ventures fail. It was an above-the-fray, on-message response, and Romney refrained from continuing his mini-feud with Gingrich over both candidates' respective wealth.

With an eye toward the general election, Romney offered effusive praise for the Medicare reform plan offered this week by Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “Today, Republicans and Democrats came together…to say, ‘We have a solution,’” Romney said, calling the bipartisan agreement an important moment for the country. “I applaud it. It’s good news.”

And in what may have been Romney’s most memorable line of the night, he mocked President Obama’s diffident request that the Iranian government return the drone lost in that country be returned. “This is a president with the spy drone being brought down, [and] he says ‘pretty please’?” Romney said. “A foreign policy based on ‘pretty please’? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Romney’s biggest challenge Thursday night came from Wallace, when the Fox News anchor asked the former Massachusetts governor to address his changes in opinion on certain social policies over the last decade. Romney admitted that he had changed his mind on issues of life and abortion after he became governor, explaining that he had thought hard before vetoing a bill regarding embryonic farming and cloning for the purposes of research. It was a thorough answer that could soften his image with some social conservatives in Iowa.

Romney quibbled with Wallace’s assertion that he had changed his position on gay rights, stating he has always believed that marriage is between a man and a woman and that he is opposed to discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation. When Rick Santorum pushed back at this, claiming Romney had signed licenses for gay marriages as governor, Romney responded that he had only been abiding by a decision by the Massachusetts supreme court upholding that state’s gay marriage law. Romney also said he was concurrently fighting to overturn that decision. “I fought it every way I possibly could,” he said.

Will the performance be enough to boost Romney in Iowa before January 3? He's polling a weak second place there, nearly even with Ron Paul, so an outright victory there looks unlikely. But by avoiding a mediocre or bad performance, Romney may have done the best he can for himself among an Iowa Republican electorate not inclined to support him.

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