5 Quick Thoughts on the Iowa GOP Debate in Ames

Romney unscathed, Bachmann-Pawlenty clashes, and a defense of civil unions from Jon Huntsman

Updated 08/12/10

AMES, Iowa -- Some observations on the Fox News Republican presidential primary debate here, filed from the basement press center of the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University, where they normally hold basketball games or Ice Capades:

Good-bye, Minnesota Nice. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann clashed early and often. Pawlenty, who had clearly come prepared with some zingers for Mitt Romney and others to make up for his lackluster debate performance in New Hampshire, denied upon questioning that he'd drawn attention to Bachmann's headaches. But he worked hard to give her some new ones. She responded with the poised and polished fierceness that's made her every appearance seem as orderly and, uh, intense as a scripted television spot.

"It is an undisputable fact that in congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent," Pawlenty said of his one-time state colleague and now national rival.

"I would say governor, 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," Bachmann retorted. "Third, you said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me."

Bachmann cast herself as a fighter: "People are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting. When it came to health care, I brought tens of thousands of Americans to Washington to fight the unconstitutional individual mandates. I didn't praise it. When it came to cap and trade, I fought it with everything that was in me, including I introduced the Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act so people could all purchase the lightbulb of their choice."

"She's got a record of misstating and making false statements. And that's another example of that list," Pawlenty retorted. "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."

"I was at the tip of the spear fighting against the implementation of ObamaCare in the United States Congress. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama ran Congress, but I gave them a run for their money," Bachmann was unmoved. "Again, on cap and trade, I was there from the very beginning, giving Speaker Pelosi a run for her money. That's why I was Speaker Pelosi about her number one target to defeat last year, because I was effectively taking them on on nearly every argument they put forward...when others ran, I fought. And I led against increasing the deficit."

An exchange about a Minnesota bill that raised taxes on cigarettes and strengthened an anti-abortion position served as the second round of their squabble, with Pawlenty saying he regretted having voted for the act and Bachmann explaining why she supported it as an anti-abortion candidate. Hard to say who was the victor here, but it was good to see them actually debating their records and actively seeking to distinguish themselves.

Newt Gets Feisty with Liberal Media Outlet Fox News. Maybe he got too much sun at the Iowa State Fair, where he was walking about under the noonday sun, giving fair-goers the thumbs-up with Callista and taking photos with families, but Newt Gingrich seemed to have had it with acting like he might actually have a shot at things if he pretended to be someone other than himself.

First he went after Fox News host Chris Wallace, chastising him, "I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions" and declaring, "I intend to run on ideas."

And then he seemingly remembered that he used to be someone, and not just an afterthought on the would-be presidential stage who people make fun of for his now-shuttered Tiffanys account and policy flip-flops.

"Look, I think this super committee is about as dumb an idea as Washington has come up with in my lifetime," he said, after all the candidates on stage affirmed they'd walk away from a ten to one cuts to revenue budget deal in the future.

"I mean I used to run the House of Representatives," the former speaker said. "I have some general notion of these things. The idea that 523 senators and congressmen are going to sit around for four months while 12 brilliant people, mostly picked for political reasons, are going to sit in some room and brilliantly come up with a trillion dollars or force us to choose between gutting our military and accepting a tax increase is irrational. This is -- they're going to walk in just before Thanksgiving and say, all right, we can shoot you in the head or cut off your right leg, which do you prefer?

"What they ought to do is scrap the committee right now, recognize it's a dumb idea, go back to regular legislative business, assign every subcommittee the task of finding savings, do it out in the open through regular legislative order and get rid of this secret phony business."

It was perhaps his applause line of the night.

His repeated clashes with the Fox News crew quickly drew praise on right-wing blogs, proving that it's possible to score points with anti-media tirades, even if the outlets in question are conservative ones. Wrote Jim Hoft at Gateway Pundit: "It's about time a Republican candidate slammed the liberal media for asking bogus 'gotcha' questions of the candidates rather than substantial policy questions. Newt went after Chris Wallace tonight for his outrageous tabloid questioning of the candidates. Awesome!"

Romney Unscathed. Romney continued his laser-like focus on the economy, but he also continued to lay out seemingly contradictory principles. For example, he backed a states rights approach to health-care legislating, but said he believed marriage should be governed at the federal level. But mainly Romney was just a pained face in a reaction shot, purposefully resisting being drawn into any explosive exchanges with his competitors. "That's fine," was all he said after Pawlenty proposed to mow the lawn of any person in America who could find Obama's stated policies on Social Security and Medicare reform -- except Romney's, whose lawn he'd only mow but one acre of.

Jon Who? Jon Hunstman was not a presence at the debate, with the exception of his support for gay rights, which is perhaps one reason he is not running hard in Iowa. "A Des Moines Register poll found that 58 percent of likely caucus goers, Republican caucus goers here in Iowa, consider support of civilian unions a deal killer for a candidate," questioner Byron York of the Washington Examiner pointed out. "You support civil unions. Why are you right and most other candidates along with most GOP caucus goers, why are they wrong?"

Huntsman's reply made clear that he really is a different sort of Republican, and while he's not as obviously an unelectable figure as Ron Paul, his role in the field may yet be the same -- to advance the general idea that Republicans can actually have a wider array of opinions on issues than they often appear to these days, and broaden the conversational space in the party. "I'm running on my record. I'm proud to run on my record. Some people run from their record, I'm running on my record. I believe in traditional marriage first and foremost. I've been married 28 years. I have seven terrific kids to show for it," he said.

"But I also believe in civil unions. Because I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality. And I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to reciprocal beneficiary rights. And I believe that this is something that ought to be discussed among the various states.

"I don't have any problem with states having this discussion. But as for me, I support civil unions....

"I believe in traditional marriage. But I also believe that subordinate to that we haven't done an adequate job when it comes to equality. That is just my personal belief. Everyone is entitled to their personal belief too."

Submissive No More? York posed a question to Bachmann that was greeted with more audience dislike than any other: "In 2006, when you were running for Congress, you described a moment in your life when your husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea. And then you explained, 'But the Lord said, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.' As president, would you be submissive to your husband?"

This is the kind of question that can kill a candidacy if answered poorly, but Bachmann manged to handle it deftly. While she may play in the same media space as Sarah Palin and even former Delaware senate candidate Christine O'Donnell -- two other hyper-conservative, attention-getting female party outsiders -- what's become increasingly clear as she has campaigned is that she is a much more self-controlled and skilled politician than they were and, at least since announcing for the presidency, not so prone to gaffes. (Though she does remain mistaken on a number of critical points, such as the relationship of the debt ceiling fight to Standard and Poor's downgrade of America's credit rating.)

"Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I'm in love with him. I'm so proud of him. And both he and I -- what submission means to us, if that's what your question is, it means respect," Bachmann told York at the debate.

"I respect my husband. He's a wonderful, godly man, and a great father. And he respects me as his wife. That's how we operate our marriage. We respect each other. We love each other."

There will be some debate over whether that was a fair question. It's true it would never be asked of a man, but then, there was no man on stage who has publicly stated he believes in a doctrine of submission for himself. It would be interesting and illuminating, however, to know if any of them believe in it for their wives.

Image credit: Jim Young / Reuters