GOP candidates trade barbs in Iowa debate

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 12, 2011

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AMES, Iowa - Representative Michele Bachmann and former governor Tim Pawlenty, both of Minnesota, used some of the harshest terms yet of the Republican presidential contest to challenge each other’s credentials last night in a high-energy nationally televised debate.

Ahead of tomorrow’s influential straw poll here, which could help determine the fortunes of each candidate, they challenged the notions of “Minnesota nice’’ to openly criticize one another.

“She’s done wonderful things in her life,’’ Pawlenty said of Bachmann. “But it’s an undisputable fact that her record in Congress is nonexistent. That’s not good enough.’’

Bachmann countered by saying Pawlenty was little different from President Obama.

“You said ‘the era of small government was over,’ ’’ she said. “That sounds a lot like Barack Obama, if you ask me.’’

“She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements,’’ Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty, who has been criticized for being too timid, also came out of the gate with a zinger directed at the presumed front-runner, Mitt Romney. Pawlenty pledged to those watching the debate that he would mow their lawn if they could identify Obama’s plans on entitlement reform.

“But in case Mitt wins, I’m going to limit it to one acre,’’ Pawlenty said, in a reference to the former Massachusetts governor’s wealth.

Romney, when asked for a response, smiled tightly and said, “That’s just fine.’’

Romney was also criticized for not weighing in on the debt ceiling agreement until the last minute, when he opposed it.

He wouldn’t respond directly to the criticism, saying that he signed a pledge to cut current spending, cap future spending, and have a balanced budget amendment.

When pressed on whether he would have vetoed the plan, he said, “I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food. What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States.’’

But Romney largely avoided any significant fire from his rivals and at times went for long stretches without speaking in the debate.

For Romney, the sparring actually began hours earlier when he found himself in an encounter with critics of his positions at the Iowa State Fair. Challenged to raise corporate taxes, Romney said “corporations are people, my friend’’ and fended off a pointed question about Social Security cuts.

The debate at Iowa State University marked the first gathering in two months for the Republican presidential field, and it comes at a time when there are wild swings in the stock market, a downgrade in the country’s credit rating, and a lingering partisan debate in Washington over raising the debt ceiling.

It also comes as the GOP field is still in flux just six months before voters start registering their choices. Romney has held a lead in the polls and is considered the national front-runner, albeit a shaky one with vulnerabilities. The race so far has left an open question over who will emerge as the chief alternative to Romney, which could soon become clear.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas is planning to announce tomorrow, in appearances in both South Carolina and New Hampshire, that he is running for president. He will then travel to Iowa on Sunday, where he and Bachmann plan to speak to the same gathering of Republicans in Waterloo. Adding further volatility to the race, Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, is coming to the Iowa State Fair today as she continues to stoke speculation that she too will enter the race.

Last night, each of the candidates sought to make a mark. It was former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s first chance to share a stage with his rivals and introduce himself to a national audience. Bachmann was trying to capitalize on a solid debate performance two months ago in New Hampshire, and she had no major missteps.

But the event could prove most pivotal for Pawlenty, who has struggled to provide traction to a once-promising campaign. He was far more feisty than he was in the previous debate in New Hampshire, where he passed up several opportunities to contrast his record with Romney’s.

Last night, he directly criticized Romney’s stance on health care in a way that he had done previously, but never with Romney standing on the same stage.

“I don’t want to miss my chance again,’’ Pawlenty said. “Look, ObamaCare was patterned after Mitt’s plan in Massachusetts, and for Mitt or anyone else to say that there aren’t substantial similarities or they’re not essentially the same plan, it just isn’t right. . . . That’s why I called it Obamneycare, and I’m happy to call that again tonight.’’

In addition to trying to impress a national audience watching on Fox News, most of the candidates are trying to stir the several thousand Iowans who will head to the straw poll tomorrow, also in Ames. The poll has oftentimes caused candidates who perform poorly to drop out of the race and provided a boost to those who beat expectations.

The candidates also disagreed over several social issues that are top priorities among many Republican voters in Iowa, with the sharpest contrast over same-sex marriage. Romney suggested that states should not have the power to decide the legality of gay marriage - as his home state did when he was governor - and made the case for a federal amendment to the Constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Representative Ron Paul of Texas said such a move would be an overreach. “I want less government,’’ he said. “If we have to have regulations, let the states do it.’’

Huntsman was the only candidate who defended civil unions of gay couples. “I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality,’’ he said.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich seemed to spend more time debating with the moderators from Fox News - where he used to be a paid commentator - than with his GOP presidential rivals. He questioned the premise of most questions directed his way and chastised the moderators for asking “gotcha questions.’’

All of the candidates said they would oppose a tax increase, even if it were paired with budget cuts that were 10 times higher.

In the altercation at the state fair earlier yesterday, Romney was shouted down at times and heckled by a boisterous group opposing cuts to government programs and thirsting for increased taxes on the wealthy.

Romney’s declaration that “corporations are people, my friend’’ failed to silence protestors who continued to challenge him. “Of course they are,’’ he insisted. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?’’

The exchange was the culmination of a terse back-and-forth that Romney had with about a dozen opponents in the front of the crowd.

Romney, with two American flags behind him and bales of hay in front of him, was the first presidential candidate to speak at the annual state fair, a gathering point for prospective voters in the first presidential caucus state. Other candidates will take the stage today.

The tense encounters came after Romney delivered a 10-minute addressand began to take questions from the audience. Romney’s campaign events are normally carefully choreographed, so it marked a rare unscripted moment in his presidential bid.

The crowd appeared to be largely pro-Romney, but a group at the front challenged him a number of times. One man, Joe Fagan, a 71-year-old Democrat from Des Moines, rose from his seat and angrily jabbed his finger at Romney.

“What are you going to do to strengthen Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid without cutting benefits?’’ he yelled.

“You ready for my answer?’’ Romney retorted. “I’m not going to raise taxes. That’s my answer. And if you want someone that will raise taxes, you can vote for Barack Obama.’’

Later, as Romney walked around the State Fair, shaking hands and guessing the ages of young children, he declined repeated questions from reporters about the wrangling during his speech. He did take time out to flip pork chops on a grill and later eat a pork chop on a stick.

“Pork chop on a stick - it doesn’t get any better than that,’’ he said at least three times.

Tracy Jan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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