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Michelle Bachmann (centre) and Tim Pawlenty (right) have both been keen to catch up on the Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney (left). Charlie Neibergall/AP
Republican Party

Pawlenty and Bachmann lead sparring in Republicans' Iowa debate

Eight candidates, all vying to be the candidate who takes on Barack Obama in 2012, face off ahead of a key straw poll.

MINNESOTA RIVALS Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann sparred bitterly last night during Fox News‘ eight-way Republican debate, trying to break out of the GOP presidential pack ahead of an Iowa test vote with huge consequences.

Each seeks to become the main challenger to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, but their efforts were newly complicated by Texas governor Rick Perry, who stole some of the spotlight from afar by announcing he was running for the GOP nomination.

Romney, a multimillionaire businessman who casts himself as a jobs creator, made his own stir earlier in the day when, at the Iowa State Fair, he declared that “corporations are people,” drawing ridicule from Democrats.

Those were just the latest twists in the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.

The squabbling between Pawlenty and Bachmann in the two-hour debate allowed Romney, the GOP front-runner making his second presidential bid, to remain above the fray and emerge relatively unscathed by his rivals.

Though every debate participant assailed President Barack Obama, it was clear from the confrontations between former governor Pawlenty and congresswoman Bachmann, each was keen to make headway ahead of Saturday’s straw poll that could well winnow the field.

On stage just a few minutes, Pawlenty – who is struggling to gain traction despite spending years laying the groundwork for his campaign – accused Bachmann of achieving nothing significant in Congress, lacking executive experience and having a history of fabrications.

“She’s got a record of mis-stating and making false statements,” Pawlenty said.

Bachmann, who has risen in polls since entering the race this summer and has eclipsed Pawlenty, quickly responded with a list of what she called Pawlenty’s liberal policies when he was Minnesota’s governor, including his support for legislation to curb industrial emissions.

“You said the era of small government is over,” she told Pawlenty. “That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me.”

Much of the rest of the debate was heavily focused on the Democratic incumbent, with Romney and his seven rivals each seeking to prove he or she was the strongest Republican to take on Obama.

“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 done if I’d had been president of the United States.”


Notably absent from the eight-candidate spectacle were Perry, who was in Texas preparing for a weekend announcement tour to early primary states, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who isn’t a candidate but stoked speculation with a visit to the Iowa State Fair.

The nation’s teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the US credit rating giving Republicans ample opportunities to criticise Obama.

Seven candidates — Pawlenty, Bachmann, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Georgia), Texas congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain — sought to separate themselves from the packed field and emerge as the chief alternative to Romney.

Pawlenty, who hesitated in a June debate to criticise the former Massachusetts governor, this time accused him of sharing views with Obama on spending and health care. “We’re going to have to show contrast, not similarities” with the incumbent president, Pawlenty said.

He sought repeatedly to tie Romney and Obama together by poking at both.

“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 has several homes, smiled and took a pass when given a chance to respond, saying: “That’s just fine.”

He kept his focus on Obama, saying: “Our president simply doesn’t understand how to lead and how to grow the economy.” He also criticised Democrat Obama on the downgrade of the nation’s credit rating.

Appearing in his first presidential debate, Huntsman 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 as a patriotic act.

Huntsman, who is not competing in the Iowa caucuses where social conservatives dominate, also tried to differentiate himself from the rest of the field. He defended his support for civil unions and offered no apologies for other moderate positions he holds.

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.”

Roughly 45 minutes into the debate, Santorum raised his hand and said: “I haven’t gotten to say a lot.”

Associated Foreign Press