Sparks Fly in Iowa

More surprises may surface in the Saturday Ames straw poll.

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.

Huntsman, Romney, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have opted out of participating in the Ames Straw Poll, each for pretty much the same reason: they don't have a chance of winning in Ames and will not compete very well in the caucuses next January. Gingrich has drawn a line in the sand in South Carolina, while Romney and Huntsman are pointing to the New Hampshire primary for their supreme early efforts.

Gingrich may have done himself the most good in the debate, considering the moribund state of his campaign. His answers were crisp and he spoke eloquently to the issues. His criticisms of Obama were targeted and deadly -- the kind of barbs that are both thoughtful and effective. But Gingrich has an uphill battle ahead of him in the coming weeks and months, although he made clear he is up for the fight.

But it is the Pawlenty-Bachmann dynamic that is perhaps the most interesting element of this weekend's Iowa activities. Both are fighting to be recognized as the logical alternative to Mitt Romney. Both are seeking to use their ties to Iowa -- Bachmann was born in the state and Pawlenty was governor of next door neighbor Minnesota -- as part of their argument to voters in that state to support them. Both are looking to be seen as legitimate national candidates. To do all of that, both must meet or exceed expectations.

Anything less than a victory in the straw poll for Bachmann will be seen as a disappointment. She showed a strong second to Romney in a June statewide poll, finishing with 22% to the former Massachusetts governor's 23%. Pawlenty came in with a paltry 6%, but has spent heavily to bring his supporters to Ames for the straw poll. A poor finish - 3rd or 4th - could very well doom his candidacy.

And hovering over the stage during the debate was the specter of Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose plan to announce his candidacy on Saturday is likely to draw some of the attention away from the Ames straw poll. Perry would enter the race with instant credibility. A recent nationwide poll showed 17% of Republicans supporting Perry as their first choice for president, trailing Mitt Romney by just 2% and nearly doubling the 7% of Rep. Bachmann, who finished behind Ron Paul, Rudy Guiliani, and Newt Gingrich.

There is little doubt that Governor Perry would make a formidable candidate. Aside from being an experienced campaigner with a gift for inspiring audiences and an ability to raise large sums of money, Perry boasts an enviable record of achievement as Texas governor. The state has a booming economy, creating 45% of the jobs in the United States since the recession supposedly ended in 2009. He is rock solid with religious and social conservatives, and a strong believer in the 10th Amendment.

Perry has drawn fire for his decision to announce his intentions on Saturday, the day of the Ames straw poll. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called Perry's decision, a "tactical blunder," adding, “If you have a candidate who says, ‘You know what, I’m not gonna be there, I’m gonna be over in South Carolina, trying to pull as much attention as possible away from your big event’ – I’ll tell you, the people of Iowa are gracious, loving, kind people, and they’re not gonna take kindly to someone, in essence, dissing their big event."

Confirming that sentiment, influential Iowa Rep. Steve King accused Perry of treating Iowans like "country bumpkins," telling The Hill, "His effort is to diminish the straw poll and if you diminish the straw poll you diminish the Iowa caucus."

Although Perry will not be on the ballot in Ames, there is a write-in effort underway on his behalf that is something of a wild card. Perry has declined to have anything to do with the write-in effort, and yet several surrogates of his are talking it up and robo-calls touting Perry are blanketing the state. Expectations for Perry in Ames are non-existent so any kind of a showing where he finishes ahead of declared candidates will be a shocker and may result in those candidates cashing in and withdrawing from the race.

Another potential wild card is the planned arrival on Friday of Sarah Palin's "One Nation" bus tour at the Iowa State Fair. Though she is not on the ballot in Ames, her presence is always fraught with political subtext. Palin is good friends with Rep. Bachmann and has spoken well of Rick Santorum. It is not likely that she will endorse either candidate, or announce her own intentions, but her presence always energizes the rank and file -- a potent reminder to the press, other GOP candidates, and President Obama that she must be taken seriously as a national figure.

As political theater, the debate might have been considered a "good show." It remains to be seen if any of the performances by the candidates will be rewarded on Saturday by a good showing at the Ames straw poll.