AMES — Tensions reached their apex Thursday night during the Fox News/Washington Examiner GOP presidential debate, sending Republican enthusiasm through the roof with less than 48 hours until the Ames Straw Poll gates open Saturday.
Debate topics were typical: conflict in the Middle East, American’s floundering economy, immigration, states’ rights, and of course, hot button social issues. Not to be missed were references to dog food and Mickey Mouse.
Atypical? How candidates came out swinging — at each other, at President Barack Obama and even at the debate moderators.
Poised and never appearing flustered, Bachmann deflected attack after attack fired by Pawlenty, including her compromise on raising Minnesota’s state tax on cigarettes in 2005. Pawlenty was then Governor, Bachmann, a state lawmaker.
Bachmann explained she initially opposed the tax, but later compromised upon learning of a provision in the same legislation that gave strong support to the anti-abortion community and platform.
“You can get money wrong, but you can’t get life wrong,” she said in the debate.
Pawlenty, who has been slow to gain momentum in the Hawkeye State, came back swinging, claiming the Congresswoman’s D.C. record was void of anything substantial.
“As to her record: she’s done wonderful things in her life, absolutely wonderful things, but it’s an undisputed fact that her record in Congress in nonexistent,” Pawlenty said. “She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements.”
“You’re killing us,” Pawlenty told Bachmann, drawing audible reaction from the audience.
The Congresswoman remained on point, countering the Governor by comparing his own record to Obama’s, stating: “You said the era of small business is over. That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me.”
Within the first hour of the debate, Bachmann and Pawlenty’s volleys almost overshadowed the other six candidates. Forty-five minutes passed in the debate with only a couple minutes from former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic Conservative from Pennsylvania. Finally, in the second hour, a frustrated Santorum called Fox News moderator Bret Baier out for not giving him the same face time as Bachmann and Pawlenty, raising his hand and declaring, “I haven’t gotten to say a lot.”
Santorum and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) sparred over American intervention in Iran, with the long-time Congressman blaming the U.S. for hostilities in Iran.
“Anyone who says Iran is not a threat is not seeing clearly,” Santorum said.
The former Senator also had his chance to stand out late in the debate, when he gave an impassioned argument on why the debt ceiling had to be raised — a stance the other candidates, particularly Bachmann, have taken vehemently against. Santorum maintained while it had to be raised, it should have been done so with a balanced budget in place.
Prominent Atlanta businessman Herman Cain seemed to spend a significant amount of his face time clarifying past comments and telling America that it “needs to learn to take a joke.” However, Cain also touted his private sector experience in repairing the economy.
“It is imperative we get this economy going in the in next 90 days,” after the next president is inaugurated, he said. One of the foundations to that is making tax rates permanent and setting a maximum tax rate for corporations.
Frontrunner Mitt Romney, who earlier in the day incited political fireworks at the Iowa State Fair, stuck to oft-heard phrases on his campaign stops.
But when asked about the bipartisan legislation that raised the debt ceiling, Romney bluntly said, “I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food. What he served up is not what I would have done as President of the United States.”
Fellow candidate Newt Gingrich, who served as U.S. House Speaker in the 1990′s, was even more blunt, calling the super-committee borne from the debt ceiling drama “dumb,” and characterized debate moderator Chris Wallace’s questions as “playing Mickey Mouse games.”
Obama was the target of several political missals from the candidates, who admonished the President’s economic and fiscal policies, as well as his military strategies overseas.
New to the candidate stage was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. Though previously pledging to skip Iowa during his campaign, Huntsman, who was also Ambassador to China under the Obama administration, visited the Iowa State Fair before the debate.
Huntsman stood out from the other seven participants on stage: the practicing Mormon believes “in traditional marriage first, but also civil unions. Our country can do better when it comes to equality,” and added the issue of marriage should go to the states. Most of the other candidates who spoke on the issue, with the exception of Paul, support a federal amendment defining marriage between one-man-one-woman exclusively.
Huntsman also has not publicly presented an economic development plan. However, he stated Thursday he would repeat the policies implemented in his native Utah.
“I’m going to do exactly what I did as Governor. It’s called leadership,” he said. “We cut taxes historically and created the most business-friendly environment in the country.”
And to those who are still flirting with a 2012 bid? Bring it on, candidates said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry — expected to join the fray this weekend — and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have not officially declared candidacy, but should they choose to, their would-be opponents are ready to welcome them to the field.