AMES, Iowa — Tim Pawlenty didn’t even try to hide his contempt for Michele Bachmann in Thursday’s GOP presidential debate here, and the question is whether the repeated hostile exchanges between the two Minnesotans hurt her, hurt him, or hurt them both.
Egged on by Fox News host Bret Baier, Pawlenty doubled down on his earlier criticism of Bachmann, saying that “it is an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent.” Pawlenty also accused Bachmann of lying: “She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements.” And perhaps channeling his inner Spock, Pawlenty furthermore pronounced his rival “illogical.”
Given a chance to reply, Bachmann said that, as governor, Pawlenty “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. You said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.”
One conservative woman from Minnesota who watched the debate here at the Stephens Auditorium on the campus of Iowa State University likened the two feuding Republicans to a brother and sister fighting at the family dining table. And Pawlenty’s criticism of Bachmann seemed especially harsh by comparison to his remarks when offered the opportunity to defend his “Obamneycare” description of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s health-care program: “Obamacare was patterned after Mitt’s plan in Massachusetts.… That’s why I called it Obamneycare, and I think that’s a fair label.” Perhaps, but it’s not exactly an insult on the level of calling Bachmann a liar.
The general consensus – at least among pundits, reporters, and bloggers here — was that Pawlenty hurt himself. “He looked weak,” said one Iowa blogger who was one of the 700 media credentialed for this event. And when I caught up with Bachmann’s campaign manager Ed Rollins after the debate, he said his candidate was “strong.”
Whether that perception was shared by Iowa Republicans — especially the more than 10,000 who are expected to cast ballots in Saturday’s straw poll here — remains to be seen. But even if Pawlenty is deemed the loser of Thursday’s debate, who was the winner? Certainly not Fox News. One of the highlights of Thursday’s debate was when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized the hosts for asking “gotcha” questions, saying they were “playing Mickey Mouse games.”
That drew cheers, and most observers here agreed that Gingrich helped himself by his performance. Unfortunately, his campaign is now virtually bankrupt. National GOP front-runner Romney also did well, using the 10th Amendment to defend his health-care plan — as a rule, you can’t go wrong talking 10th Amendment with conservatives. However, there were cheers for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum when he said — specifically in reference to same-sex marriage — that states “don’t have the right to do wrong.” Herman Cain drew loud applause several times during the debate, and generated a hearty laugh when he said, in relation to some of his earlier remarks on immigration, “America’s got to learn how to take a joke.”
Ron Paul… was Ron Paul, and managed to turn a question about immigration into a denunciation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While not a favorite of most Republicans, Paul is nonetheless expected to finish among the top three in Saturday’s straw poll. The same cannot be said of Jon Huntsman, who is likely to finish eighth or ninth.
There was some talk among the assembled press here that all the fireworks onstage Thursday will, in the end, be irrelevant. The anticipated entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the GOP presidential field will change the dynamic of the race to such an extent that, a few months from now, no one will remember what was said onstage Thursday. At least that was the view expressed by several media wizards in the spin room after the debate. But those reporters and pundits won’t be voting in Saturday’s straw poll, and the opinions of the national press corps are still ultimately less important than the opinions of Iowa voters. And thank God for that, huh?