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Iowa GOP debate: Bachmann, Pawlenty earn high marks

Washington Bureau

The debate in Ames is in the books and now the attention of the political world shifts to Saturday’s Straw Poll, a traditional test of Iowa organizational might. As Republicans vote in Ames, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will make his presidential ambitions clear in a speech in South Carolina. But before we move forward, let’s take a final look at how the presidential candidates fared Thursday evening:

Michele Bachmann: Although Mitt Romney is considered the field’s front-runner, most of the action seems to swirl around the Minnesota congresswoman, whether she’s engaged in a slap fight with Tim Pawlenty, being photographed in an odd way by Newsweek, answering questions about her marriage, or even just going to the bathroom. (The brief time her podium was empty during the debate was perhaps its most surreal moment; the press corps at the debate site thought perhaps Fox News, the debate’s sponsor, had erected a symbolic nod to Rick Perry.)

Bachmann did nothing Thursday to alter expectations that her campaign will do well in Saturday’s Straw Poll in Ames. Her debate performance exhibited her strengths as a candidate -- titanium-spin-style fortitude, clear statements of her positions -- with her weaknesses -- a sometimes shaky command of the facts, a seeming disinterest in policy minutiae -- but all in all, she was the person she’s been since she stepped into the ring.

Photos: Scenes From Iowa - Republicans at the State Fair

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With Bachmann, the trouble often begins after events like these are over and her statements are reexamined. For example, she told the debate audience that Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of the U.S. credit rating vindicated her opposition to raising the debt ceiling. The truth is more complicated. The rating agency was reacting to the political turmoil between Democrats and Republicans -- especially “tea party” Republicans -- as much as anything, and in fact was fearful that Congress would not figure out a way to raise the ceiling in time.

After the debate, Bachmann’s surrogates said that the congresswoman’s statement was correct because the final debt-ceiling agreement didn’t go far enough to cut spending, but Bachmann has always opposed raising the ceiling under just about any circumstances, regardless of the terms.

Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor went about as nuclear as a guy like him can, showing a newfound aggressive style. He didn’t hesitate to rip Bachmann’s experience to her face, he took a shot at President Obama every chance he got, and he even was given a second opportunity to knock Mitt Romney over his Massachusetts healthcare plan (although he still pulled his punch a bit there). The question, of course, is whether it can make any difference at this juncture.

But his campaign had some reasons to feel good Thursday night. Any undecided Straw Poll voter watching the debate may have been given reason to reconsider Pawlenty. Saturday is crucial for him.

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Mitt Romney: The early-line favorite seemed to be stuck in second gear during the debate and never really was given a chance to open it up. Although it may have been tempting to view Romney as the primary benefactor of the squabbling between Bachmann and Pawlenty since he wasn’t the one taking fire, it also deprived of him time to show off his knowledge of the economy.

Romney, in fact, enjoyed a much more spirited debate on taxes and economic matters earlier in the day at the Iowa State Fair -- and had the debate audience seen that Romney instead of the one on the stage Thursday night, they may have gained a more complete picture of the candidate. (Also, we still have no idea what that line about not eating Obama’s dog food meant.)

Rick Perry: The Texas governor wasn’t in the debate, but he may as well have been. The Fox News moderators even asked other candidates about him -- and of course, those who responded welcomed him into the race. Right now, Perry is enjoying his role as the second-act plot twist; he’s more a hulking shadow over the field than an actual presence in it. That’s about to change in a big way. Nick Ayers, Pawlenty’s campaign manager, said Thursday he expects Perry to bask in cable-news attention for weeks as the new New Thing, comparing him to Donald Trump, Herman Cain, and yes, Michele Bachmann.

Jon Huntsman: This was supposed to be a night when the former Utah governor introduced himself to America, but those watching probably walked away with as hazy a view of who Huntsman is and why he is running for president as ever. Although Huntsman certainly projected a different persona than his rivals -- supporting same-sex civil unions, talking about the benefits of globalization, and praising the merits of a company that bears his name -- he never was able to articulate the case for why his candidacy matters. He was, perhaps, too much the adult in the room, showing little fire or sizzle. He’ll need to figure out a way to break out and define himself as candidate quickly.

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Ron Paul: Although little what the Texas libertarian says is surprising anymore, his willingness to speak his mind never seems to grow old. And he showed again that he was able to pack the auditorium in Ames with supporters, who cheered a Republican candidate calling for the end of American involvement overseas. Paul’s debate with ex-Sen. Rick Santorum over the threat posed by Iran was perhaps the evening’s most compelling moment, one in which an American politician openly questioned a bedrock staple of U.S. foreign policy (economic sanctions) and said he didn’t actually blame Iran for wanting a nuclear bomb. It was, for all intents and purposes, political heresy.

Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum: The Cain Train is showing some real wear-and-tear now, as the pizza executive continues to speak of his candidacy as part of a learning curve. Nothing less than a top-tier finish in the Straw Poll would restore his relevance; Santorum showed some nice moments, although a fit of pique over time didn’t work to his advantage; and Gingrich seemed to be debating Fox News’ Chris Wallace more than any of his competitors, repeatedly complaining about “gotcha” questions in a manner that came off as self-righteous. Fairly soon, it would seem, no one will be bothering the former House speaker with any questions unless he turns things around quickly.


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