Bachmann, Pawlenty Trade Jabs at Iowa Debate

Bachmann, Pawlenty Trade Jabs at Iowa Debate

By Scott Conroy - August 12, 2011

AMES, Iowa -- With Saturday's Ames Straw Poll looming particularly large for each of their respective candidacies, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty engaged with one another at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate here in a series of heated exchanges.

Both Minnesotans have bet heavily on winning the straw poll as a key element in their efforts to build themselves up as the most viable alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the national front-runner in the GOP presidential race.

Pawlenty fired the first salvo early in the contest by repeating the charge he has leveled in campaign stops around Iowa that Bachmann’s record in Congress is “non-existent.”

“Leading and failing is not the objective,” Pawlenty said in a subsequent exchange with Bachmann, after his opponent had stressed that she led the way in opposing President Obama's effort to raise the debt ceiling and pass health care reform. “Leading and getting results is the objective.”

Throughout most of the debate, Bachmann stared straight ahead at the moderators, refusing to even sneak a quick glance at Pawlenty, who has consistently trailed her in Iowa polls but boasts a well-heeled Iowa organization, which his campaign hopes will push him to a strong showing at the straw poll.

But Bachmann came prepared for Pawlenty’s attacks, and members of her communication team distributed fact-check printouts to reporters who were covering the debate.

“The policies that the governor advocated for were cap and trade; he praised and wanted to require Minnesotans to purchase the unconstitutional individual mandate in health care; and he said the era of small government is over,” Bachmann said. “I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress.”

Pawlenty was quick with a retort when the time bell rang to signal another round in the ring with Bachmann.

“She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements, and that’s another example of that,” he said. “She says she’s got a titanium spine. It’s not her spine we’re worried about, it’s her record of results. If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you’re killing us.”

As Bachmann and Pawlenty sucked up most of the evening’s dramatic moments, Romney was allowed to coast through another debate without suffering a serious onslaught from his competitors, all of whom are vying to catch him in the national polls.

Despite Romney’s decision to bypass the straw poll and downplay Iowa in his electoral strategy, he spent the day working the state fairgrounds and his campaign team has shown indications of being open to contest more enthusiastically the nation’s first voting state should the political terrain here become more amenable to him than previously thought.

“He hopes to win in Iowa,” Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told RCP after the debate, noting that the candidate was also focused on the other early voting states.

But as Romney aides projected an air of calm confidence that seemed to have rubbed off from their candidate, the post-debate spin room featured more spillover from the Bachmann and Pawlenty camps, each of whom appeared eager to continue to engage one another.

“It’s a really good sign when you’re the top target in a debate, and I think we were tonight by Congressman Bachmann,” Pawlenty campaign manager Nick Ayers said.

Asked whether Bachmann’s decision to engage directly with Pawlenty was indeed a good indication that the Iowa front-runner viewed her fellow Minnesotan as her biggest threat in the state, Bachmann spokesperson Alice Stewart said that the congresswoman was merely correcting her rival’s distortions.

“If he wants to tell lies about her record, she’s up there to tell the truth about his,” Stewart said. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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