The debate was the opening act for Saturday’s Iowa straw poll, a traditional test of campaign strength in the state that holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2012.
A withering critique of President Obama’s handling of the economy was overshadowed by a burst of incivility among the Republican presidential candidates who gathered here for a debate on Thursday night and fought to stay alive in the party’s increasingly fractious nominating race.
Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty took off the gloves and threw several punches at one another. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum nearly screamed at each other over whether to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And Newt Gingrich didn’t like some of the questions thrown his way, which he angrily denounced as “Mickey Mouse games.”
The fierce exchanges between the two Minnesotans highlighted a nationally televised presidential debate that also featured heavy criticism of President Barack Obama’s economic leadership by eight Republican White House hopefuls.
For weeks, the two had been bashing one another, mostly on the campaign trail here in Iowa. Bachmann has claimed the title of Iowa frontrunner, while Pawlenty has been playing catch up in advance of Saturday’s straw poll. Fox News’ Chris Wallace was quick to give the two an opportunity to fight it out in person.
Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who is seeking to rejuvenate his campaign, repeatedly assailed Mrs. Bachmann’s record. He stood directly at her side and accused her of “making false statements” and having “a record of misstatements.”
“The American people are going to expect more and demand more,” he said. His criticism was so stinging, quiet jeers could be heard in the crowd. He added: “If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us.”
Mrs. Bachmann shot back that Mr. Pawlenty pursued policies as Minnesota governor that sound “a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.” She cited his support for cap-and-trade environmental policies and for individual health care mandates.
“Governor, when you were governor in Minnesota, you implemented cap and trade in our state, and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandate, and you called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance,” she said. She also dinged him for saying in 2006 that “the era of small government is over.”
“That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me,” she said as Pawlenty shook his head.
In Iowa, Pawlenty is desperately seeking to gain ground on Bachmann, a conservative and Tea Party favorite who leads polls in the state. He wasted little time in ripping into her record in Congress.
“It’s an indisputable fact that her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” said Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota who was criticized when he passed up an opportunity to criticize Romney in the last debate.
He said Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, had fought in Congress against spending, against the healthcare overhaul and against other initiatives that had passed despite her efforts. “She said she’s got a titanium spine. It’s not her spine we’re worried about, it’s her record of results,” he said. “If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us.”
Clearly, Bachmann was prepared for the incoming fire. She entered the night in a dramatically different position than she had nearly two months ago at her first debate. That night, in New Hampshire, she announced her candidacy, introduced herself and her biography to voters and impressed observers with her poise.
Mitt Romney, who was positioned at the center of the stage, sought to stay above the fray as he stood silently and watched the Minnesota politicians engage in their unusually sharp back and forth. He brushed aside a suggestion that he had not played a leading role in the debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
“I’m not president now,” he said with a smile, “though I would have liked to have been.” Mr. Romney, who has raised more money and built a stronger organization than any other candidate, seemed to relish in steering clear of the fight. He defended his health care record as governor of Massachusetts and often resorted to humor.
As Mr. Pawlenty tore after Mrs. Bachmann, Newt Gingrich went after the news media. Representative Ron Paul of Texas joined in the fight, taking exception to Mrs. Bachmann’s legislative record. Herman Cain, a businessman who has drawn large crowds in Iowa, dismissed all of his rivals as career politicians. [via Huffpost, The New York Times and Reuters]