My take, up at FPM, on the debate last night:
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.