Then it was Bachmann’s turn. “When you were governor in Minnesota you implemented cap and trade in our state and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandates and called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance that the government would mandate,” she retorted. “You said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.”
He denied her charges, saying “she’s got a record of misstating and making false statements.”
Their exchange underscored the fact that neither of the neighboring-state politicians can afford to lose the first-in-the-nation contest that will be held here six months from now — and that each poses the greatest threat to the other’s hopes in Iowa.
Even beyond the sparring between the two Minnesotans, the debate was the most contentious gathering of Republican candidates to date. It came at a pivotal moment of the race, two days before the Ames Straw Poll, a state party fundraiser that is an early test of campaign organization and voter enthusiasm. The straw poll has been an uncertain predictor of which candidate will prevail, but has in the past crushed the hopes of those who fall below expectations.
Pawlenty and Bachmann were among eight candidates on stage, though their drama defined the evening and is likely to reverberate in the coming days.
All were also shadowed by the presence of two figures who were not there: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has indicated that he is about to announce his presidential bid, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who will continue her flirtation with a 2012 run by making a trip to the state on Friday.
The third formal debate of the campaign season was the first appearance onstage by former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. The others were former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is presumed to be the front-runner; libertarian congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas); former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.); Herman Cain, who was chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, and ex-House speaker Newt Gingrich.
For Pawlenty, the debate also represented an opportunity to try to recover from his greatest misstep thus far. In the second debate on June 13 in New Hampshire, Pawlenty backed away from an attack he previously had leveled at Romney and the health-care system he had implemented in Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts system became a model for the national one passed under President Obama, which conservatives deplore as a government takeover. And Pawlenty’s unwillingness to confront Romney on it left many Republicans wondering whether he has what it takes to prevail in what promises to be a fierce contest against Obama.