AMES, Iowa–Michele Bachmann had a tough act to follow in Thursday’s debate against her Republican presidential opponents. Herself.
The congresswoman from Minnesota managed to duplicate the spark and spunk she showed off in the last GOP primary debate–in spades–backing up her improbable surge in the most unpredictable Republican race in decades.
Right at the start of the debate, the petite, lone female candidate coolly turned toward her fellow Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, and compared the former governor's record on cap and trade and health care to that of President Obama. She remained placid when Rick Santorum and Ron Paul lashed out at her instead of focusing their blows on the race’s unofficial front-runner, Mitt Romney.
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Bachmann’s fearless performance defied the caricature of her as a screwball candidate from the fringes of the tea party movement–captured in the unflattering photo of her on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Can she compete with the boys in the big league? Yes, she can.
Detractors will find plenty to criticize in Bachmann's latest performance. If she wanted to dispatch those, like Pawlenty, who contend that her two-and-a-half terms in Congress have left her with a thin record, Bachmann didn't help her cause by citing, as one of her signature accomplishments, the "lightbulb freedom of choice act." And her reputation for playing loose with the facts won't be helped by her suggestion that Pawlenty backs a carbon tax (a position he has since repudiated) or that Standard & Poor's vindicated her opposition to the debt ceiling in its downgrade of the nation's credit rating.
But Bachmann's confidence on national television made her stand out and telegraphed that she’s unafraid of being overshadowed by fellow conservative firebrands hovering, at least for the moment, on the sidelines.
A potentially formidable rival for the nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, confirmed through a spokesman just hours before the debate that he's joining the race. And former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is planning to swoop into the Iowa State Fair on Friday, threatening to steal media attention away from Bachmann and the other candidates campaigning there on the eve of Saturday’s high-stakes straw poll.
Asked in the debate if she was worried about Palin, Bachmann serenely said the two are “very good friends,’’ adding that there’s room in the race for her, Perry—and even Fox News debate moderator Bret Baier.
In a another tense moment destined for endless replays on cable television, Bachmann, a born-again Christian, was asked about her remark in 2006 that she would be “submissive’’ to her husband and whether that would apply in the White House. The audience booed. Bachmann smiled. “Thank you for that question,’’ she said, going on to define "submission" in the context of the couple's marriage of 33 years as a matter of mutual love and respect.
Bachmann’s rivals did little to expose her vulnerabilities. Her never-surrender position on raising the nation’s debt limit went largely unchallenged, even though a failure by Congress to do so earlier this month could have devastated the economy. “When they dropped our credit rating, I was proved right in my position,’’ she said. Standard & Poor’s said nothing of the sort. Rather, the ratings agency criticized the protracted, highly partisan squabble and said Congress should have gone farther to cut the deficit.
It wasn’t until the end of the debate, when many viewers may have tuned out, that Santorum scolded: “To suggest that we never need to raise the debt ceiling, that is showmanship, not leadership.’’
Pawlenty went after her the most aggressively, but his criticism of her lack of executive experience and legislative accomplishments fell flat. Bachmann sought to turn her hard-line tactics into an asset: “I have a consistent record of standing on my convictions. I didn’t cut deal with special interests.’’ She described herself as the “tip of the spear’’ in the fight against Obama’s health care program.
For better or worse, Bachmann raised expectations even higher for a first-place finish in Saturday’s straw poll, to be held in same Iowa State University arena that hosted the debate. Her strong performance shows that despite her shortcomings, she is a political talent.
Alex Roarty contributed in Washington contributed to this article.
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