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Keystone pipeline the clear winner in GOP debate

Bryn Weese, Senior Washington Correspondent

The Keystone XL pipeline was the clear winner in Thursday's Republican debate, garnering wild applause as the candidates blasted President Barack Obama for delaying the $7-billion project.

A decision from the White House on the pipeline, which would carry crude from Alberta's oilsands to refineries in Texas and elsewhere on the Gulf of Mexico, was expected this year.

But last month, the State Department ordered further reviews that would put off a decision on the controversial project until after the 2012 presidential election.

If built, it's estimated it would create 20,000 construction jobs right away and 100,000 indirect jobs once it's fully operational.

During Thursday night's GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa, front-runner Newt Gingrich called it "utterly irrational" to delay the pipeline given the jobs it would create.

Gingrich also said he favours a Republican move in Congress tying approval of the pipeline to a payroll tax cut extension that Democrats have been pleading for.

"And the president of the United States cannot figure out that it is - I'm using mild words here - utterly irrational to say, 'I'm now going to veto a middle-class tax cut 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,'" he said.

The audience erupted in loud applause.

"You want to look like you're totally out of touch with the American people, be my guest. We're not backing down," he added.

Environmental activists, including some Hollywood celebrities, have lobbied hard to stop the pipeline, which they say encourages development of so-called dirty oil from Alberta.

Republican candidate Michele Bachmann blasted Obama in the debate for what she said was a political move, nothing more.

"His entire calculus was based upon his re-election effort, because quite frankly, the radical environmentalists said to President Obama, you pass Keystone, we're not going to do your volunteer door-to-door work," Bachmann said, referring to speculation the White House's delay of the project was spurred on by key financial backers and campaign volunteers who opposed the project.

"This pipeline is one that would have brought at least 20,000 jobs, at least $6.5 billion worth of economic activity," Bachmann added. "If I was president of the United States, I wouldn't have taken the decision that President Obama did."

A decision on Keystone is now expected sometime in 2013. TransCanada, the company proposing the pipeline, and the state of Nebraska have reached agreement on a new route that avoids a sensitive aquifer and drinking water source.