Squabbling Reigns in Iowa GOP Debate

Candidates spent the night digging at each other and Fox's moderators, and no one walked away a clear winner or loser

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Michele Bachmann's record is "non-existent." Tim Pawlenty "sounds like Barack Obama." Newt Gingrich is tired of "Mickey Mouse games." Indeed, If you take the Republican presidential field at its word, the winner of Thursday night's debate was Barack Obama.

Or Rick Perry, the Texas governor who enters the GOP race Saturday.

It's hard for anybody sharing the stage in Ames, Iowa, to declare outright victory in a debate that exposed the weaknesses of each candidate. It was a contentious two-hour session punctuated by several Minnesota-nasty exchanges between Bachmann and Pawlenty. She underscored her skills as a debater, and her limits as a leader. Pawlenty may be T-Toast.

(RELATED: What the Candidates Said on the Economy)

"It's an indisputable fact," Pawlenty said of Bachmann, "that her record is non-existent." The former Minnesota governor pointed to Bachmann's relatively light load of accomplishments in Congress and added, "The American people are going to expect more and demand more."

Bachmann fired back with a fair and mostly accurate assessment of Pawlenty's moderate positions on the environment and taxes, positions he abandoned in a bid to win the nomination of an increasingly conservative GOP. "That," she said of Pawlenty's gubernatorial record, "sounds like Barack Obama to me."

Still, Bachmann had precious little to say about her own record. Perhaps because it doesn't matter; GOP voters are so hungry to defeat Obama that they will set aside such little things. Bachman suggested her credentials as "a fighter" is what qualifies her to be the GOP nominee.

"People are looking for a champion," she said. "They want someone who is fighting."

Pawlenty tried to show some fight. But he seemed to be trying too hard, and unlike Bachmann, he doesn't wear the bully's role well.

Criticizing the president's position on deficit reduction, Pawlenty declared early in the debate, "Where is Barack Obama on these issues? If you can find Barack Obama's specific plan on any of those items, I will come to your house and cook you dinner." Awkward pause: "Or if you prefer, I'll come to your house and mow your lawn." But if Romney wins, Pawlenty added: "I'm limited to one acre."

It was a soft jab at Romney's huge bank account. The front-runner shrugged it off. "That's just fine," Romney said with a smile.

(RELATED: Transcript of Debate Live Blog)

Romney floated above the fray and locked into his all-about-jobs message, even when Pawlenty attacked his health care record in an attempt to recover from a gaffe in the last GOP debate. "I don't want to miss that chance again," Pawlenty said, insisting that Romney's defense of his health care reform record "just isn't credible."

Knowing Pawlenty had actually missed his chance again, Romney was able to shrug off another attack. "I think I liked Tim's answer in the last debate better," he said.

Tough questions from the Fox News Channel panel put every candidate on the spot.

One panelist listed a series of centrist positions Jon Huntsman staked out while serving as Utah's governor before Obama named him ambassador to China. Are you running for president in the wrong party? "I'm proud of my service to this country," Huntsman replied. "If you love this country, you serve her." No applause. The audience's silence spoke volumes about his hurdles to the nomination.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bristled at panelist Chris Wallace, who peppered him with predictable questions about his record.

"I wish you would put aside the gotchya questions," Gingrich said, accusing the questioner of "playing Mickey Mouse games." It was a less-than-presidential moment for one of the GOP's smartest, most accomplished candidates.

So Bachmann scored the most debate points _ who's crazy now? And Romney survived another debate without losing ground to anybody on stage.

But Obama had to be smiling in the White House; the response to his deep political woes are more Mickey Mouse games. And Perry has a path as wide as Texas to the GOP nomination.

Image credit: Reuters

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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