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All eight declared GOP presidential candidates appeared on stage at Iowa State University in a lively debate that featured genuine differences of opinion as well as some heavy criticism of Barack Obama. The candidates debated less than 48 hours before what is being touted as the first major test in the campaign: a straw poll in Ames where the candidates’ organizational strength will be measured by how many of their supporters they can bring in to participate.
The debate was also noteworthy for who didn’t participate. The expected announcement of Texas Governor Rick Perry on Saturday in South Carolina of his intention to enter the race threatens to alter the dynamics of an already fluid contest, while sucking some of the media oxygen away from the important straw poll in Ames.
The straw poll will feature six candidates — Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, former Senator Rick Santorum, former Governor Tim Pawlenty and Rep.Thaddeus McCotter. The history of the straw poll suggests that it won’t have much of an impact on who wins the Iowa Caucuses next January. But there is the potential for some surprises that might make or break a candidate or two. A bad showing for some of the second tier candidates would impact their credibility and their ability to raise money. It is likely that at least one and perhaps more of the declared candidates will drop out by the end of the weekend.
The debate, sponsored by Fox News, the Washington Examiner, and the Iowa Republican Party, saw sparks fly early and often. Candidates directed most of their fire at President Obama, but Mitt Romney came in for his share of criticism and the two Minnesotans, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Governor Tim Pawlenty, had several testy exchanges with Pawlenty criticizing Bachmann for what he termed her lack of a record while Bachmann charged that Pawlenty supported some of the policies of President Obama.
Pawlenty started the spat by accusing Bachmann of standing by in Congress while health care reform and other Obama proposals were enacted into law. “[H]er record of accomplishments and results is nonexistent,” said Pawlenty.
Bachmann shot back, listing issues to which Pawlenty appeared to agree with Obama. She said that Pawlenty “implemented cap and trade,” that he supported an “unconstitutional” individual mandate, and that he once said that “the era of small government is over.” The two combatants glared at each other as the exchange continued in that vein for several minutes.
Pawlenty must feel that he needs to open some daylight between himself and Bachmann, but his manner of doing so was perhaps too harsh. For her part, Bachmann more than held her own but seemed a little taken aback by the directness of Pawlenty’s assault. Both candidates righted themselves almost immediately and performed well for the rest of the debate.
Indeed, there appeared to be no clear winner for the evening. Mitt Romney made no major gaffes and seemed content to lurk in the background as the second tier candidates battered each other. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum criticized Rep. Bachmann for not going to Iowa to campaign against three state judges who ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage, and almost everyone criticized Ron Paul for his curious stance on Iran.
Paul is expected to do well in the straw poll on Saturday, given the passionate support he receives around the country and his impressive ability to raise money on the Internet. But his stated belief that Iran should have nuclear weapons if it wants them no doubt reminded voters that many of the Texas congressman’s views are not in the mainstream of the party and indeed, are “fringe” positions.
Santorum and Herman Cain performed well but did not get to distinguish themselves as they appeared to be shorted in air time by the panel of journalists asking the questions. Former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman got plenty of questions directed his way, but his compatibility with much of the Republican Party is suspect. His answers showed him to be even less conservative than Mitt Romney, and he failed to adequately defend his positions on amnesty and gay marriage.
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