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If there were no other candidates besides Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann on the stage at tonight’s debate, the political impact would have been exactly the same. Some commentators are saying that their back-and-forth jousting benefited Mitt Romney by allowing him to say above the fray, or that it benefited Rick Perry, who wasn’t there because he won’t announce his candidacy for another two days.
This is missing the point. This debate was about the Ames Straw Poll coming up on Saturday, which — together with Perry’s entry — will shift the dynamics of the race no matter what happens. If Tim Pawlenty doesn’t finish strong on Saturday, his campaign will quickly fall into a death spiral — a top donor is already abandoning Pawlenty for Perry, and that could be a sign of things to come. On the other hand, a victory at Ames would resurrect Pawlenty’s floundering campaign. Bachmann came in second to Mitt Romney in the Des Moines Register poll in June; Romney is sitting the straw poll out, so beating Bachmann is Pawlenty’s best bet at signalling that he has an organization that can win Iowa. It is quite possible that other candidates will be a factor on Saturday — Herman Cain or Ron Paul might sneak toward the top of the heap, damaging Pawlenty — but Bachmann was Pawlenty’s major target tonight for a reason.
So who won the Pawlenty vs. Bachmann debate? They both landed some punches, but my sense is that Bachmann came out on top. Tomorrow morning I’m flying to Iowa, and I’ll try to figure out if straw poll attendees seem to agree.
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