AMES, Iowa — Minnesota rivals Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann sparred bitterly Thursday night during an eight-candidate Republican debate, seeking to break out of the GOP presidential pack ahead of an Iowa test vote with huge consequences.
The debate, which hosted GOP contenders for the presidential nomination, capped the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.
In the two-hour debate, the squabbling by Pawlenty and Bachmann allowed Romney, the GOP front-runner making his second presidential bid, to remain above the fray and emerge relatively unscathed by his rivals. And ultimately, Americans got a chance to briefly see what the candidates offered to aid the nation's ills -- from the debt ceiling debacle to how they would create jobs.
Bachmann and Pawlenty's efforts were newly complicated by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who stole some of the spotlight from afar by making it known hours before the debate that he was running for the GOP nomination.
Though everyone on the stage assailed President Barack Obama, it was clear from the quarreling between Pawlenty and Bachmann during the feisty two-hour debate who had the most on the line ahead of Saturday's straw poll that could well winnow the field.
On stage just a few minutes, Pawlenty, who is struggling to gain traction, went after Bachmann, accusing the congresswoman of achieving nothing significant in Congress, lacking executive experience and having a history of fabrications.
"She's got a record of misstating and making false statements," Pawlenty said.
Bachmann, who has risen in polls since entering the race this summer and has eclipsed Pawlenty, quickly responded with a list of what she called Pawlenty's liberal policies when he was Minnesota's governor, including his support for legislation to curb industrial emissions.
"You said the era of small government is over," she told Pawlenty. "That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me."
Other jousting broke out later in the debate between the two, prodded by questions. But otherwise the debate was heavily focused on the Democratic incumbent, with Romney and his seven rivals each seeking to prove he or she was the strongest Republican to take on Obama.
"I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food," Romney said when asked whether he would have vetoed the compromise legislation that Congress gave to the president that raised the debt ceiling. "What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States."
Notably absent from the eight-candidate spectacle were Perry, who was in Texas preparing for a weekend announcement tour to early primary states, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who isn't a candidate but was stoking presidential speculation anew with a visit to the Iowa State Fair.
The nation's teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating giving Republicans ample opportunities to criticize Obama. The Democratic president will get his shot to counter the criticism next week during a Midwestern bus tour that will take him through this state that helped launch him on the path to the White House four years ago.
On Thursday, he, too, tried to align himself with a public fed up with economic uncertainty and Washington gridlock. "There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics," he declared in Michigan, where he was touring an advanced-battery factory
In Iowa Thursday night, the Republicans commanded the spotlight.
Seven candidates — Pawlenty, Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain — sought to separate themselves from the packed field and emerge as the chief alternative to Romney.
Pawlenty, who hesitated in a June debate to criticize the former Massachusetts governor, poked at Romney and Obama at the same time.
"Where's Barack Obama on these issues. You can't find his plans on the most pressing issues in this country," Pawlenty said, promising audience members and TV viewers he would "come to your house and cook you dinner" if they could find Obama's proposals. "Or if you prefer I'll come to your house and mow your lawn ... In case Mitt wins, I'd limit it to one acre."
Romney, who was looking to protect his leads in national and state polls, smiled and took a pass when given a chance to respond, saying: "That's just fine."
In the hours before the debate, Romney created a stir when, at the Iowa State Fair, he declared to Iowans that "corporations are people."
But that statement — at least initially — didn't come up while on stage with his rivals, allowing him to keep his focus on Obama. He said, "Our president simply doesn't understand how to lead and how to grow the economy." He also criticized the incumbent Democrat on the downgrade of the nation's credit rating.
Huntsman — appearing in his first presidential debate — acknowledged he had not yet presented an economic plan, but he cited his economic record as governor of Utah as evidence of what he would accomplish as president. He defended his service as ambassador to China under Obama.
Gingrich, pressed on the implosion of his campaign amid financial strife and infighting earlier this summer, chastised the Fox News panel for "gotcha questions." He said Republicans including Ronald Reagan and John McCain had staff defections during their campaigns, and he said he intended, in his words, to "run on ideas."
Fox News pollster and pundit Frank Luntz was impressed by Gingrich.
“I thought that Newt Gingrich won the battle, I think Mitt Romney won the war, I think Tim Pawlenty had the funniest line of the evening – but his battle back and forth between him and Michele Bachmann hurt him, challenged him,” Luntz said. “Some of the language tonight was very powerful – when Mitt Romney gave seven specific ideas – that’s what the Republican electorate is looking for.”
Gingrich “took on the media tonight, which is something that everyone watching this debate said: ‘Hooray, go for it,’” Luntz said. “I was in the room for the first two-thirds of it – that got the greatest applause of any line this evening. Newt was the attack dog – and he did it in a way that the public would have said: ‘Go for it.’
“But Mitt Romney sounded presidential,” he continued. “No one laid a glove on him – the challenges on him were not significant .”
Luntz also said Pawlenty was not “effective” in his back and forth with Bachmann, and he was not prepared for the debate.
Democratic consultant Joe Trippi also said Gingrich did well, as did Romney, and Pawlenty “did massive damage to himself.”
Roughly 45 minutes into the debate, Santorum raised his hand and said: "I haven't gotten to say a lot."
Showing the wide diversity of opinion, Paul gave a staunchly libertarian answer to nearly every question from the economy to foreign affairs, essentially saying the United States should have friendly relations even with countries that violate human rights and not interfere in their internal affairs. "It's about time we talk to Cuba," Paul said at one point. He also said the United States had created the hostile relations between it and Iran.
Even before the debate began, it was a campaign day to remember.
At an appearance early in the day, Romney was badgered by hecklers at the state fair. In response to chanting about corporations, he said that "corporations are people," a comment Democrats predicted would be a defining moment of his campaign.
Romney, a wealthy businessman who has struggled with an aloof and elitist image as he tries for the GOP presidential nomination a second time, made the remark while outlining options for reducing the federal deficit and overhauling entitlement programs.
Despite tea party outrage that sometimes focuses on banks and auto companies, Romney has said to applause from GOP audiences that the rights of business are being trampled under Obama to the detriment of the struggling economy. But in Thursday's audience, the line encountered resistance.
A few hours after Romney's awkward moment, Perry spokesman Mark Miner confirmed that the Texas governor would announce that he was running for president while in early primary states on Saturday.
Perry's candidacy is certain to upend the race, and he could challenge Romney for the role of jobs-focused candidate.
The conservative governor is seen as a potential bridge between the party's social and economic wings.
Though undeclared as a candidate, he has been lining up donors and establishing contacts in early voting states such as Iowa. He hosted a national day of prayer in Houston last week, a nod to the strength of evangelical conservatives, an influential force in Iowa.
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