AMES, Iowa — GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney and seven rivals trying to emerge from the pack castigated President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and the debt ceiling debate Thursday night in a debate shadowed by the latest Republican to join the field, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"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."
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, assailed Obama for "his lousy leadership and lousy economy." And Rep. Michele Bachmann noted that she had voted against raising the debt ceiling. She raised her voice saying she had a message for Obama: "You are finished in 2012, and you will be a one-term president."
Minutes later the two Minnesota rivals attacked each other's records, underscoring how much each has on the line in a test vote in Iowa on Saturday that could make or break their candidacies.
Pawlenty, who is struggling to gain traction, went on the offensive, accusing Bachmann 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, responded with a list of what she called Pawlenty's liberal policies as governor, including his support for legislation to curb emissions.
"You said the era of small government is over," she told Pawlenty. "That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me."
Notably absent from the stage were Perry, who was in Texas, 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.
Just hours before the start of the eight-candidate spectacle, Perry's aides made it known that he was running for the GOP nomination. Texas' longest-serving governor was finalizing plans for a weekend announcement tour. It was the latest twist in the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.
Capping it all, along with Perry's announcement, will be Saturday's Iowa straw poll. It's an early test of strength for Republicans competing in the state and could well winnow the field.
The nation's teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the nation'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.
For now, however, the Republicans commanded the spotlight, with seven candidates seeking 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.
Former House Speaker Newt 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."
Bachmann and Pawlenty repeatedly sparred, prodded by the questions. Roughly 45 minutes into the debate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum raised his hand and said: "I haven't gotten to say a lot."
Even before the debate began, it was a campaign day to remember.
At an appearance before the debate, 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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