- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2011

AMES, Iowa — The notion of “Minnesota nice” took a hit in the presidential debate here Thursday night, as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of Minnesota, took aggressive public swipes at each other, blasting one another’s records and questioning whether they were ready to run the country.

The battle royale between the the two Gopher State Republicans started early on in the testy two-hour presidential debate, underscoring just how much they each had riding on the debate and the high-profile Ames Straw Poll Saturday — which can make or break a campaign.

Mr. Pawlenty fired first by refusing to back off his frequent criticism that Mrs. Bachmann lacks the executive experience and legislative resume to be president.

“It is an indisputable fact that her record of accomplishments and results is nonexistent. That’s not going to be good enough for our candidate for president of the United States,” Mr. Pawlenty said about Mrs. Bachmann, before rattling off what he casts as his conservative record of accomplishments.

Mrs. Bachmann shot back, saying that, as governor, Mr. Pawlenty backed cap-and-trade, praised an individual mandate for health care and once said the “era of small government was over.”

“That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me,” the three-term congresswoman said, adding that she has a consistent record of fighting for the Constitution and that she voted against raising the debt ceiling. “People are looking for a champion; they want someone who has been fighting.”

The debate featured another round of stiff criticism of President Obama, with the Republicans criticizing everything from his economic to military and social policy.

Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain, meanwhile, promises to cut taxes and Texas Rep. Ron Paul called for the troops to be brought home from the military conflicts overseas. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum vowed to fight for a federal marriage amendment, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ripped into the moderators for their “gotcha” questions and also criticized the new deficit super-committee that was part of the recent deal to raise the debt ceiling and that is tasked with recommending $1.5 trillion in tax increases or spending cuts.

“I think this super-committee is about as dumb an idea as Washington has come up with in my lifetime,” he said, predicting that “they’re going to walk in just before Thanksgiving, say: ‘All right, we can shoot you in the head or cut off your right leg. Which do you prefer?’ “

The debate also featured the first foray onto the debate stage by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who entered the race with high expectations and a message of political civility in June. Since then, Mr. Huntsman, Mr. Obama’s former ambassador to China, has gone through a campaign staff shakeup and struggled to gain any traction in national polls.

Mr. Huntsman defended his decision to serve as ambassador to China under President Obama and his support of civil unions for gay men and women, while also boasting about his record of cutting taxes and making Utah “number one in this country in terms of job creation.”

Before the debate, many were curious to see whether anyone would take a hard swing at the record of Mr. Romney, the frontrunner in national polls and fundraising — especially after he emerged from the June debate in New Hampshire largely unscathed.

Mr. Romney, though, once again emerged with only a few scratches, benefiting from sniping between some of his GOP rivals.

Mr. Paul, for instance, accused Mr. Santorum of engaging in war propaganda on Iran and suggested that he misunderstood the history behind the U.S. involvement in the country. Mr. Santorum suggested that anyone who shared Mr. Paul’s views is “obviously not seeing the world very clearly.”

But the exchanges between Mr. Pawlenty and Mrs. Bachmann, the frontrunner in Iowa polls, were the fiercest. At one point, Mr. Pawlenty basically called Mrs. Bachmann a liar.

“She has a record of misstating and making false statements,” he said, while noting that she failed to stop less spending in Washington, the health care overhaul and federal bailouts.

“She said she has titanium spine,” he said, alluding to a line in her stump speeches. “It’s not her spine we are worried about, it is her record of results. If that is your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you are killing us.”

Mrs. Bachmann said she was at the “tip of the spear” raging against “Obamacare” and taking on the Democratic agenda in Congress.

It was a nasty exchange and represented an about face for the former two-term governor from Minnesota who took flak following the New Hampshire debate, where he declined a chance to repeat his criticism of the universal health care law Mr. Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts, while the two men shared the same stage.

This time around, though, he took advantage of another opportunity to link the Massachusetts health care system to Obama’s federal plan, which also includes a individual mandate, saying they “are essentially the same plan.”

“That’s why I called it Obamneycare. I think that is a fair label, and I’m happy to call it that again tonight,” he said.

“That’s not the only similarity between Mr. Romney’s record and Mr. Obama‘s,” he said, adding that Mr. Romney “ran up spending” as governor and appointed “pro-choice, Democrat or liberal” judges.

Mr. Romney joked that he liked Mr. Pawlenty’s response the first time and then returned to his 10th Amendment defense, saying the health care plan he signed as governor was a constitutionally acceptable policy experiment by a state.

“The right answer for every state is to determine what is right for those states,” he said.

Sponsored by Fox News and the Washington Examiner, the debate at the Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State University, as well as the straw poll on Saturday, offer the candidates a third chance to shape the political story-line on a national stage, as the GOP battle heads into the fall.

The eight Republican presidential contenders came together at a dramatic time on the economic front, with the unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent and after as Standard & Poor’s Corp. downgrading of the nation’s credit rating and a wild week on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average moved more than 400 points for more than four straight sessions.

The shaky economic news sent shock waves across the political word, grabbing the attention of the White House and the the GOP candidates on the campaign trail, who have seized on the bad news as opportunity to attack Mr. Obama’s first two-plus years in office.

“On every dimension you can think of in this president’s first two-and-a-half years in office, the actions he took made it harder for entrepreneurs to build businesses, for banks to loan money, for big businesses to invest in capital and in people,” Mr. Romney told an audience during a morning appearance at the Iowa State Fair. “As a result the American people are still suffering and that is why I predict in this place on this day that in November 2012 President Obama will not carry the state of Iowa.”

The debate and straw poll in Ames come during a crucial point for the rest of the field, many of whom are trying to cast themselves as the best alternative to Mr. Romney.

Before the debate, the stakes generally were thought to be highest for Mr. Pawlenty and Mrs. Bachmann, both of whom have aggressively campaigned in the state in preparation for the straw poll and who hoped that a strong performance in the debate could provide them with some extra street cred among the activists that dominate the event.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, however, remained the elephant in the room, after his campaign announced he would officially enter the presidential field Saturday a decision made possible by the lingering belief that Mr. Romney is a weak frontrunner.

The potential candidacy of the three-term governor loomed large over the field for weeks, putting him second in most national behind Mr. Romney. Now he promises to shake up the race, starting with the fact that his announcement Saturday is likely to steal some of the thunder from whoever shows well in the straw poll that day.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, didn’t take part in the debate and she has not indicated whether she plans to run. However, she still is expected to make an appearance at the Iowa State Fair sometime this week.

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