In their final debate before the voting starts, the Republican candidates for president avoided confronting one another yesterday, expressing broad agreement on the need to trim government spending, enhance international trade, and reduce the federal role in education.

With the contentious issues of illegal immigration and the war in Iraq taken off the table by the debate's organizers, the GOP candidates found themselves with little opportunity to dissect one another's positions or public records.

One of the more vigorous charges was prompted by a question asking the candidates to identify the biggest obstacle to national progress in K-12 education.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee said that the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, was the prime obstacle. Whenever anyone tries to give parents more choice regarding their children's education, Thompson said, "the NEA is there to oppose it."

As Thompson was making his point, his campaign staff sent an e-mail to reporters noting that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has risen to the top in the polls in Iowa, was the only Republican candidate to address the NEA's annual convention in Philadelphia last summer.

Teachers' unions generally are seen as supporters of the Democratic Party.

On education, Huckabee said that Washington should serve as a clearinghouse for the best practices in education. And he cited his own record while Arkansas governor as being "the most impressive" in education.

That assertion was immediately challenged by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Huckabee's chief competitor in Iowa. Romney said that students in his own state had led the nation on standardized tests during his administration.

Most of the other candidates voiced support for giving parents more choices among public schools, private schools, charter schools, religious schools and home schooling.

The 90-minute debate - televised nationally by cable news networks and some PBS stations - was held in Johnston, Iowa, under the sponsorship of the Des Moines Register. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are set for Jan. 3.

At one point, the moderator, Register editor Carolyn Washburn, asked the candidates to raise their hands if they considered global climate change to be a real and serious matter caused, at least in part, by human activity.

Led by Thompson, the field refused to comply, although several candidates, including Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, said that the nation should proceed on the assumption that the threat was real.

Doing so, McCain said, would have the effect of producing green-energy jobs in the nation, reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and improving the environment.

While the stories about the various candidates' pasts were largely absent from the debate, Giuliani was asked about the use of New York City police to protect him as mayor when he was out of the city, apparently pursuing an extramarital affair.

Giuliani said that he had been open about what the security detail had done and how it had been paid - and that he would be forthcoming as president as well.

"I think I've had both an open, transparent government and an open, transparent life . . . ," Giuliani said. "I can't think of a public figure that's had a more transparent life than I've had."

Also participating in the debate were U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, as well as former Ambassador Alan Keyes of Maryland.

Keyes, who had been kept out of several previous debates, stressed his opposition to abortion and said that he would not vote for Giuliani, the only candidate in the Republican race who supports abortion rights, should the former New York mayor be nominated.

The Democrats are to debate in Iowa today, starting at 2 p.m.

See debate video clips via http://go.philly.com/iowa.gop

Larry Eichel's previous stories plus other election coverage and links at http://go.philly.com/campaign2008

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Contact senior writer Larry Eichel
at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.