GOP Presidential Candidates Spar In Iowa Debate

Republican presidential candidates debated in Ames, Iowa, Thursday night — just two days before Saturday's straw poll. The debate featured two frontrunners: Mitt Romney, who leads in national polls, and Michele Bachmann, who has polled well in Iowa. It also marks the debate debut of former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

One of the traditions of American presidential campaigns comes tomorrow. The Iowa Straw Poll decides nothing official for Republicans but casts a light on the candidates. Frontrunners try to make sure they don't trip over their shoelaces, while long-shot candidates try to seize the chance to shine. Last night in Iowa, eight candidates attended a debate and NPR's Don Gonyea begins our coverage.

DON GONYEA: This was the third debate of the Republican presidential campaign; each has been surrounded by lots of hype and broadcast on national TV. Last night's was co-sponsored by Fox News.

(Soundbite of debate)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Ames Iowa on the campus of Iowa State University and the Republican presidential debate.

GONYEA: But what set last night's apart is that it lived up to the hype. There was pressure on the candidates to do something to create momentum going into tomorrow's straw poll, and that resulted in the kind of intense sparring that's been absent from previous debates.

Most of the attention was on the two Minnesotans on the stage, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Governor Tim Pawlenty. Bachmann's sudden rise this summer has pushed Pawlenty back into the pack. His campaign needs a very strong showing in the straw poll, and he came out swinging, saying Bachmann has accomplished nothing in Congress.

(Soundbite of debate)

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Republican Governor, Minnesota): 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 says 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Fox News): Wait. Wait. Wait. Congresswoman Bachmann, 30 seconds to respond.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Thank you so much. 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.

GONYEA: The questions from the panel encouraged such conflict. Pawlenty was also prodded to go after Mitt Romney over the Massachusetts health care bill he signed while governor. In a debate back in June, Pawlenty declined to attack Romney on the issue, but last night he obliged.

(Soundbite of debate)

Mr. PAWLENTY: Mitt, look, Obamacare was patterned after Mitt's plan in Massachusetts. And for Mitt or anyone else to say that there aren't substantial similarities or they're not essentially the same plan, it just isn't credible. So that's why I called it Obamneycare, and I think that's a fair label, and I'm happy to call it that again tonight.

GONYEA: Romney responded.

(Soundbite of debate)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): I think I liked Tim's answer at the last debate better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: There's some similarities between what we did in Massachusetts and what President Obama did. But there's some big differences.

GONYEA: Fox Anchor Brett Baer asked Romney why he'd been so silent during most of the recent debate in Congress over the debt ceiling. Romney did oppose the deal reached by the president and congressional Republicans.

(Soundbite of debate)

Mr. BRETT BAER (Fox News): If you were president, you would have vetoed that bill?

Mr. ROMNEY: Look, I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food. All right, what he served up was not what I would have done if I'd have been president of the United States.

Mr. BAER: I know, but that bill...

GONYEA: It was in keeping with Romney's campaign strategy. He mostly ignores his Republican competition while looking ahead to a race against President Obama.

Two other moments in the debate are worth noting. All of the candidates rejected tax hikes as a way to deal with deficits. At one point Bret Baer asked what if there were a deal where there'd be $10 in cuts for every $1 in tax hikes.

(Soundbite of debate)

Mr. BAER: But who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Would you raise your hand if you'd feel so strongly about not raising taxes you'd walk away on the 10 to one deal?

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: All eight candidates raised their hand. Then there's the issue of a soon-to-be candidate who was not on the stage. Texas Governor Rick Perry has not campaigned in Iowa and is skipping the straw poll, but is expected to get into the race with a weekend announcement. Congressman Ron Paul.

(Soundbite of debate)

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Oh no, I'm very pleased that he's coming in because he represents the status quo and I feel like I'm sort of separated from the other candidates, with my strong belief in liberty and limited government and a different foreign policy and want to deal with the Fed, so he'll just dilute all their votes.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

GONYEA: Others also welcomed Perry in their public statements at least. But his entry into the race will likely muddy whatever result comes out of the Ames straw poll, as Perry attracts attention as the new guy, but also one who can challenge Mitt Romney and join the top contenders in the field.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Ames, Iowa.

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