It was a lively and often fractious showdown, but last night's Republican presidential debate did something that such encounters rarely do. It generated light along with heat.
Several of the candidates engaged in testy exchanges with each other, revealing real differences in their approaches to leadership, their ability to show grace under pressure, and occasionally their views on policy. But when the smoke cleared, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney seemed to maintain his position as the fragile front runner even though he now faces his biggest challenge from Texas Governor Rick Perry, who plans to enter the Republican race tomorrow. Perry did not attend the debate. Neither did former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who hasn't announced whether she will run for president.
Romney held his ground on the issues and didn't make any big mistakes, and none of his rivals had a breakthrough moment. All this suggests that his position at the head of the pack has not changed, at least for now. [See a slide show of the 2012 GOP candidates.]
The candidates spent much of their time attacking President Obama, and Romney argued that his business background makes him the most qualified challenger. He was calm and steady, and avoided or finessed answers to some questions that could have embarrassed him, such as whether as governor he got a top credit rating for Massachusetts by highlighting revenue increases, which he now opposes for the federal government. In the end, as GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News last night, "He looked presidential." And that might have been enough for the evening.
Earlier in the day, Romney had faced off with hecklers at the Iowa State Fair. Romney was respectful but held his ground, and the exchange, replayed frequently on cable news shows all day, showed a more energized and aggressive Romney than many voters had seen in the past. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the deficit.]
The liveliest part of the two-hour debate--and the portion that is generating the most news coverage--was the sparring between Representative Michele Bachmann and former Governor Tim Pawlenty, both of Minnesota. They kept hammering each other over various issues, including who was more opposed to abortion, who was more conservative, and who had the best record in government. Pawlenty said, "Look, she has done wonderful things in her life, absolutely wonderful things, but it is an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent."
Bachmann fired back immediately. "When you were governor in Minnesota," she told him, "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. You said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me." [See political cartoons about President Obama.]
The intensity of their clashes reflected the fact that Bachmann and Pawlenty have a lot at stake in the straw poll of presidential preference in Ames, Iowa tomorrow because they have invested so heavily in making a good showing there.
Pawlenty, under questioning from journalists, criticized Obama on healthcare and kept returning to his record as governor, which he said was the best of any of the candidates on creating jobs and providing efficient, effective government.
One of Bachmann's more controversial moments came when she said she opposed any increase in the debt ceiling until Congress agreed to various strictures on spending and committed itself to a balanced budget. This won't be popular with the business community, which supported the recently enacted debt-ceiling increase rather than allow the government to default. But it could help Bachmann with conservative Tea Party activists in tomorrow's straw poll of presidential preference in Ames. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stood out as the most confrontational candidate. He berated journalists for Fox News, who were on the panel of questioners, for playing "Mickey Mouse games" and asking "gotcha" questions, such as why several of his senior staffers resigned as his national campaign was beginning. Gingrich said staff turmoil isn't unusual, and that it even afflicted Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon. Gingrich may have come off as too much of a Washington insider at times, speaking in "legislative-ese" such as when he called for the repeal of "Dodd-Frank" and "Sarbanes-Oxley," using the names of members of Congress who sponsored legislation without explaining what he was talking about.
As has happened at previous debates, Representative Ron Paul of Texas set himself apart with his libertarian views. He said his contention that the government is spending far too much money, an argument he has made for years, has been vindicated by the debt crisis. Paul also said the United States was too involved in various wars and military ventures, and he supported bringing U.S. troops home immediately from Iraq and Afghanistan. In perhaps his most controversial remarks, Paul said the United States should stop confronting Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program and should "mind our own business."
Other participants in the debate were former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and businessman Herman Cain. None appeared to make much headway.