Opinion: Iowa GOP Debate: No Perry or Palin, but plenty of verbal punches


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Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann swiped at each other; Rick Santorum and Ron Paul traded shots; Newt Gingrich slapped Fox News; Mitt Romney was all business but was nice to Herman Cain; and Jon Huntsman Jr. said his economic plan ‘is coming.’

The GOP debate Thursday night in Ames, Iowa (on a far less glitzy set than CNN used for its June debate in New Hampshire), two days before the Ames Straw Poll, was hardly the lovefest that some critics might have expected, with half of the press panel drawn from the perceived conservative stronghold of Fox News Channel.


The candidates went after each other, went after the president, and a few times, went after the questioners.

(Only candidates polling 1% or higher in nationally recognized polls were invited. Among those left out was Thaddeus McCotter, who is nevertheless participating in the straw poll.)

Held at Iowa State University, the debate featured questions from Fox News Channel anchors Bret Baier (‘Special Report’) and Chris Wallace (‘Fox News Sunday’), and Washington Examiner writers Byron York and Susan Ferrichio.

Among the highlights ...

Wallace cited Pawlenty’s criticism of fellow Minnesotan Bachmann (who also makes much of her Iowa roots), asking: ‘Is she unqualified, or is she just leading you in the polls?’ Bachmann fought a grin at that.

After Pawlenty called Bachmann’s congressional record ‘nonexistent,’ the two engaged in an intramural dispute, revisiting state-level fights over cigarette taxes and cap-and-trade. Essentially, Pawlenty said Bachmann fought for causes but lost (such as opposing Obamacare) saying: ‘If that’s your record of effective results, please stop, you’re killing us.’

One might glean from those words that Pawlenty believes a politician should only fight for causes he or she is sure of winning, or, if the fight wasn’t successful, he or she doesn’t get credit for the effort in opposition.

In response, Bachmann accused Pawlenty of sounding like Obama in many respects, and frequently hit the theme of ‘I fought,’ saying she stood on principle, even when the result went against her (such as in the recently passed debt-ceiling deal, which she opposed).

But Bachmann wasn’t Pawlenty’s only target. Like all of the candidates, he criticized President Obama, at one point saying he’d come over and cook dinner for anyone who could find the president’s specific plan for the economy. Or, he suggested, he could mow the person’s lawn, then took the opportunity to jab the wealthy Romney, saying: ‘In case Mitt wins, I’m limited to one acre.’

‘That’s fine,’ said Romney, regaining his unflappability after sparring with hecklers earlier in the day at the Iowa State Fair.

Snow isn’t the only thing that’s cold in Minnesota.

During the foreign policy section of the debate, Paul and Santorum got into a tussle over Iran, which Paul doesn’t think merits all the hand-wringing and worry it inspires.

Wallace read a 2009 quote from Paul’s website, which said: ‘One can understand why [Iran] might want to become nuclear-capable if only to defend themselves and to be treated more respectfully.’

Paul pointed out the risk of sanctions, and that many nations have nukes in the area, and said: ‘Why wouldn’t it be natural that [Iran] might want a weapon?’ He urged dialogue, saying: ‘Why should we write people off?’

This elicited one of several loud cheers for Paul that erupted from the audience, which evidently contained a healthy percentage of his supporters.

Challenged by Wallace, Paul reiterated his points. When Wallace tried to go to Cain, Santorum raised his hands and cited Iranian aggression since 1979, which prompted Paul to go back to 1953 and the installation of the Shah.

A bit later, Santorum cited the oppressive government of Iran, and how it ‘tramples’ the rights of women and homosexuals. In another rebuttal, Paul reiterated that we’re overly concerned, causing Santorum to get upset again, and thus setting Paul onto the oft-stated view that the United States should stop spending money overseas, particularly in wars.

That got mixed boos and cheers from the audience, and Baier cut to commercial, saying: ‘When we come back, we’ll try to get a hold of things.’

They came back to social issues, which didn’t settle things down one bit.

In the midst of discussions on the moralities and legalities of same-sex marriage -- everyone supports traditional marriage, but Huntsman also likes civil unions -- York asked Bachmann a question in which he quoted her as saying that, in deciding to study tax law, she was ‘submissive’ to the wishes of husband Marcus Bachmann.

He then asked her if, as president, she would still be submissive to her husband.

Yes, he did.

After a long pause and a quick succession of conflicting facial expressions, Bachmann finally smiled broadly and said evenly: ‘Thank you for that question, Byron.’ Then she explained, in her marriage, ‘submission’ means ‘respect.’

That wasn’t the only question that upset a panelist. When Wallace asked Gingrich about the upheaval in his campaign and its reputed $1 million in debt, and why his ‘campaign is a mess so far,’ the former Speaker of the House shot back with what appeared to be an off-the-cuff line, referring to moderator Baier’s opening remarks.

He said: ‘I took seriously Bret’s injunction to put aside the talking points, and I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions.’

That got a big cheer and then Gingrich went on to cite other candidates who’d had campaign-staff implosions in the primaries, such as Ronald Reagan and John McCain.

Then he said he’d rather field serious questions than play ‘Mickey Mouse games.’

To which Wallace retorted, ‘Speaker Gingrich, if you think questions about your record are Mickey Mouse, I’m sorry. I think those are questions that a lot of people want to hear answers to, and you’re responsible for your record, sir.’

For the record, in conversation with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity after the debate, Gingrich said he jotted down Baier’s admonition against talking points and then ‘wrote right under it, ‘Then we want you to quit gotcha questions,’ because I knew that sooner or later it would happen.’

Mitt Romney once again defended his healthcare plan in Massachusetts, in particular from Tim Pawlenty, who took a harder tack than he did in a previous debate in New Hampshire.

After looking skyward and licking his lips, Romney mused: ‘I think I liked Tim’s answer in the last debate better.’

While Romney spent most of the debate defending himself and attacking Obama, he did toss a kind word to former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Cain, saying: ‘Herman Cain and I are the two on the stage here who’ve actually worked in the real economy.’

If people want to elect a businessman, Romney said: ‘They’ll have to choose one of us.’

All of the candidates raised their hands when asked if they’d vote against a bill that offered $10 in cuts to $1 in tax increases.

On several issues -- such as abortion, Romney’s healthcare plan and same-sex marriage -- the 10th Amendment got a bit of a workout.

Criticizing what he believes is inconsistency in his fellow candidates’ stands on what does or doesn’t fall under the 10th Amendment, Santorum quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying: ‘The states do not have the right to do wrong.’

Actually, it’s ‘“No one has the right to choose to do what is wrong,’ widely attributed (particularly by those in the antiabortion movement) to Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, supposedly said in response to Douglas’ assertion that slave owners had the right to choose to own slaves, which was another fight rooted in the 10th Amendment.

Essentially Santorum is saying the 10th Amendment doesn’t give the states the right to do things that are morally wrong. While we all now agree slavery was morally wrong, the other issues raised are still the subject of vigorous debate.

The candidates were also asked if they minded that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is reportedly announcing his candidacy on Saturday, in Iowa, after the debate, or that as-yet non-candidate Sarah Palin is expected to take her One Nation bus tour to the Iowa State Fair on Friday.

None objected, with Bachmann reasserting her friendship with Palin, and Paul announcing that Perry was likely to draw votes only from his competitors.

Regarding Perry, Cain said he’s just ‘one more politician,’ which burnishes his credentials as a non-politician business executive.

And, after one break, Bachmann was late returning to her podium. To Baier’s enquiry about her, Romney helpfully said: ‘She’ll be right back.’

In closing statements, Santorum and Bachmann appealed to the straw-poll voters; Cain pointed out again he’s a ‘business problem-solver’; Paul reiterated his usual no-wars-gold-standard-liberty-property-rights platform, to loud cheers; Romney tweaked Obama as being a ‘man out of his depth’; Pawlenty had a Marvel moment, saying, ‘With great blessing comes responsibility’; Huntsman, whose family founded a cancer hospital, said: ‘We have a cancer growing on this country called debt’; and Gingrich once again called for Congress to get back to work now.


Newt Gingrich campaigns in Iowa

Nearing presidential announcement, Rick Perry says he’ll run on his record

Sarah Palin takes her bus to Iowa; Oh, look it’s the Ames Straw Poll weekend

-- Kate O’Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O’Hare on Twitter @KateOH.

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