AMES, Iowa-The Fox News panel wasted no time at Thursday night's Republican presidential debate in setting up a sparring match between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann. The two GOP contenders from Minnesota, who have a lot riding on Saturday's Iowa straw poll, obliged, leading to a combative evening on the Iowa State University campus.
Building on his theme of "tested leadership," the former governor of Minnesota immediately challenged the three-term congresswoman on her lack of executive experience. "The American people are going to expect more and demand more," Pawlenty told Bachmann.
She responded with a pointed attack on Pawlenty's conservative record. Saying he reminded her of Barack Obama on key policies, Bachmann claimed Pawlenty had supported cap-and-trade and the healthcare individual mandate. "She's got a record of misstating and making false statements," replied Pawlenty, protesting Bachmann's claims.
Calling herself the "tip of the spear" in battling President Obama's initiatives, including fighting Obamacare and the raising of the debt ceiling, Bachmann asserted that "people are looking for a champion." Since Obama won out legislatively on those issues, Pawlenty jabbed back, saying, "Please stop, because you're killing us."
With the Fox News panel stirring up a prolonged face-off between the two Minnesotans, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania interjected plaintively with a call for equal time. Later Santorum sparred with Bachmann himself, taking issue with her no vote on the debt ceiling compromise: "To suggest that the debt ceiling should never be raised-that's showmanship, not leadership."
Newt Gingrich, a former Fox News contributor, twice criticized the news channel's panel for what he deemed to be "gotcha" questions regarding his staff defections. But the former Speaker of the House did manage some applause lines when he blasted the current Congress and White House for the committee approach to debt reduction, calling it a "dumb idea." He mocked the notion that 12 lawmakers would return in four months and "brilliantly come up with a trillion dollars." While drumming his fingers on the podium, Gingrich demanded they "get rid of this secret, phony business."
As was the case in the New Hampshire debate, the GOP challengers mostly took it easy on GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney. Pawlenty, panned by pundits for not being tough enough on the former Massachusetts governor during the New Hampshire debate, took a shot Thursday night by reiterating his "Obamneycare" comparison of the Massachusetts health plan championed by Romney and the national plan initiated by Obama.
"I liked his answer in the last debate better," Romney responded to the jab, with the camera showing Pawlenty laughing along with his opponent. Romney then repeated his well-rehearsed answer that he would grant a waiver to all 50 states on his first day in office and would push to replace the national plan with state solutions.
Romney also highlighted his private sector experience in job creation, naming Georgia businessman Herman Cain as the only other candidate who shared it. Plus, he quickly rejected a suggestion that he might consider tax increases.
The candidates also resisted taking any potshots at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will reportedly join the fray in earnest with a formal announcement on Saturday that will share headlines with the Iowa straw poll. Cain welcomed Perry's expected entry, saying Thursday night that every politician that enters the race further sets apart his private sector experience.
Questioned on a prior statement that America should build a 20-foot electric fence on the border to stop illegal immigration, Cain leaned in and smiled, saying, "America has got to learn to take a joke," adding that he still called for a policy of "high fences and open doors."
Rep. Ron Paul, often at odds with the Republican Party, urged an end to foreign wars and compared Iran's quest for nuclear weapons to a situation the United States tolerated for decades: Soviet possession of thousands of nuclear weapons. Santorum repeatedly challenged Paul's assertions, pointing out that "Iran is an existential threat to Israel."
When questioned about his stint as ambassador to China under the Obama administration Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, appearing in his first debate, responded that he is proud of his service. He drew a line on social issues, saying he supported civil unions for same-sex couples, while Romney, Santorum, and Bachmann called for a federal marriage amendment.
Bachmann, often in the spotlight, was singled out late in the debate for a question about her biblical belief that a wife should submit to her husband. "Thank you for that question," she said with a pause for emphasis, before saying that in her marriage that meant mutual respect.
Following Thursday's debate and Saturday's straw poll, the focus on Iowa continues next week, as President Obama visits and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin makes an appearance.
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