Pawlenty, Bachmann Square Off in Debate Ahead of Iowa Straw Poll

BY David Chalian  August 12, 2011 at 12:49 AM EDT

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman take the stage for a debate Thursday in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman take the stage for a debate Thursday in Ames, Iowa. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

AMES, Iowa | There were eight candidates on the debate stage Thursday night in Iowa and two hours’ worth of questions on topics ranging from the economy and jobs to Afghanistan, immigration and same sex marriage.

But there was only one storyline coming out of the debate that will dominate the cable airwaves for the next 24 hours – or at least until Sarah Palin shows up at the Iowa State Fair on Friday evening.

Minnesota nice” went out the window when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, both Republicans from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, took each other on directly in a manner that clearly suggested each one sees the other as their main obstacle to a strong showing at the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday.

Here is an example of one of the two heated exchanges between the Minnesotans at the debate:

PAWLENTY: “It is an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent. That’s not going to be good enough for our candidate for president of the United States.”

BACHMANN: “When you were governor in Minnesota you implemented cap and trade in our state and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandates and called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance that the government would mandate. 

Third, you said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.”

PAWLENTY: “Well, I’m really surprised that Congresswoman Bachmann would say those things. That’s not the kinds of things she said when I was governor of the state of Minnesota. And moreover, she’s got a record of misstating and making false statements. And that’s another example of that list.”

“She says that she’s fighting for these things. She fought for less government spending; we got a lot more. She led the effort against Obamacare, we got Obamacare. She led the effort against TARP, we got TARP. She said 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.”

Pawlenty and Bachmann have each been spending a considerable amount of time in Iowa in advance of Saturday’s test of their campaigns’ organizational strength at the straw poll. They kept that potential Iowa GOP activist audience in mind Thursday night as they each sought to give as good as they got.

Pawlenty, in particular, needed to show that he wasn’t afraid to launch direct combat on one of his opponents after shying away from doing so two months ago at a debate in New Hampshire.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s debate-stage debut was largely forgettable, which may suggest that he is going to find it increasingly difficult to gain traction in this race if he continues to be unable to seize a spotlight and generate some enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Asked about his service as President Obama’s Ambassador to China, he offered this response with ease:

“I’m proud of my service to this country. If you love your country, you serve her. During a time of war, during a time of economic hardship, when asked to serve your country in a sensitive position where you can actually bring a background to help your nation, I’m the kind of person who’s going to stand up and do it, and I’ll take that philosophy to my grave.”

Frontrunner Mitt Romney emerged unscathed, yet again, and stuck to his well-honed script of putting forth his private-sector experience as a stark contrast with President Obama.

The impact of this debate, however, might not be long-lasting. Sarah Palin will suck up a ton of oxygen with her bus tour rolling into Des Moines on Friday. And then Texas Gov. Rick Perry takes center stage in his mission to upend the race by announcing his candidacy in South Carolina on Saturday.

Ask David Chalian your questions about the 2012 race.