AMES, Iowa — The last vestiges of “Minnesota nice” fell by the wayside during a Republican debate here Thursday night, as the two candidates who have the most at stake in Iowa went after each other in the roughest exchange thus far in the race for the 2012 presidential nomination.
“Look, she has done wonderful things in her life, absolutely wonderful things, but it is an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who represents his state.
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.
Pawlenty, given an opportunity for a do-over, said: “I don’t want to miss that chance again. Mitt, look — ObamaCare was patterned after Mitt’s plan in Massachusetts. . . . That’s why I called it Obamneycare, and I think that’s a fair label.”
Romney laughed and said: “I like Tim’s answer at the last debate better.”
But Romney added, as he has in the past: “We put together a plan that was right for Massachusetts. The president took the power of the people and the states away from them and put in place a one-size-fits-all plan.”
Otherwise, however, Romney largely escaped the kind of criticism that is normally leveled by the other candidates at the frontrunning contenders during these kinds of forums.
Meanwhile, Gingrich fought repeatedly with one of the moderators, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who questioned why the former speaker’s campaign “has been a mess so far.” Gingrich accused Wallace of asking “gotcha questions” and “playing Mickey Mouse games.”
All the candidates found their résumés and past positions on display.
Huntsman was put on the defensive repeatedly, as he was challenged over his support for civil unions, his service in the Obama administration and his family business’s record of sending jobs overseas.
However, he noted that, during his administration, Utah had led the nation in job creation.
“When you look at me and you ask what is that guy going to do, look at what I did as governor,” Huntsman said.
Romney, meanwhile, emphasized not his record as governor, but his experience in the private sector turning around struggling companies.
He noted only he and Cain had extensive private-sector experience, and added: “Let me tell you about how the real economy works.”
Bachmann and Pawlenty argued over whether championing change or achieving it matters more.
“I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress,” Bachmann said. “That is what qualifies me, as a fighter and representative of the people, to go to Washington, D.C., and to the White House. People are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting.”
Pawlenty, meanwhile, contended that Bachmann’s has been a record that is long on rhetoric, but empty of achievement.
“She fought for less government spending, we got a lot more. She led the effort against ObamaCare, we got ObamaCare. She led the effort against [the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program, which bailed out Wall Street], we got TARP,” Pawlenty said. “If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us.”
Santorum also leveled criticism at Bachmann, saying her opposition to raising the debt ceiling amounted to “showmanship, not leadership,” and put the country at risk of default.
One tense moment came when Bachmann was asked about an earlier recollection, in which she said she had studied tax law because her husband, Marcus, had wanted her to, and that the Bible admonishes a wife to be submissive. Would that also apply in the White House, she was asked.
She paused, as the audience booed the moderator.
“I’m in love with him. I’m so proud of him. And both he and I — what submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect,” she said. “I respect my husband. He’s a wonderful, godly man, and a great father. And he respects me as his wife. That’s how we operate our marriage.’’
Paul was the only candidate who kept returning to foreign policy, and specifically, his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s time we quit this,” Paul said. “It’s time — it’s trillions of dollars we’re spending on these wars.”
The dynamics of the race seem certain to shift with the entry of Perry, who has an establishment imprimatur as the nation’s longest-serving governor, but who also has a populist bent that gives him strong appeal with the tea party.
Even as the other contenders were in their final hours of debate preparation here, Perry’s nascent operation was quickly and aggressively revving up.
“We are trying to get in the first million dollars of contributions very rapidly, to give the campaign its initial capital so important to get off the ground well,” the campaign wrote in an e-mail to potential donors. “If you can send your own check in to us now, it will further that goal.”
Perry’s campaign plans to hold fundraisers in nine cities between Aug. 20 and Sept. 1
Perry has indicated that he will announce his candidacy on Saturday at a speech before the RedState Gathering, a conservative event, in South Carolina. He will campaign in New Hampshire later that evening, before making a three-day swing through Iowa.
Perry will not be the only distraction from the officially sanctioned Iowa GOP events. Palin announced Wednesday night that she — and her enormous tour bus — will be making an impromptu visit to the Iowa state fair.
All of that may well tamp down any bounce that the winner of the Iowa straw poll might otherwise enjoy.