AMES, Iowa—Eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination took direct aim at each other early and often on Thursday during the two-hour debate in Iowa, a sign that the presidential campaign has reached another gear with symbolically important balloting—the Ames Straw Poll—looming this weekend.
The pugnacious tone of the debate contrasted sharply with two earlier face-offs among the Republican candidates and featured several heated one-on-one exchanges between Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.
In their earlier encounters, the candidates largely avoided criticizing one another, reserving their fire for President Obama. While there were plenty of barbs for the president at the Iowa debate, the candidates seemed intent on taking aim at more immediate rivals.
There was no better example of the increased urgency than an exchange between Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. After infamously ducking the issue last debate, Pawlenty was given another opportunity to criticize Romney for the health care plan he signed into law in Massachusetts. This time, Pawlenty, said, he “didn’t want to miss his chance again,” and pounced.
“Mitt, look, 'Obamacare' was patterned after Mitt's plan in Massachusetts,” Pawlenty said. “And for Mitt to say they're not the same plan ... it just isn't credible. And that’s why I called it ‘Obamneycare,’ and I think it's a fair label, and I'm happy to call it that again.”
Romney, the presumed front-runner, would not be baited. He limited himself to a quip: "I think I liked Tim's answer in the last debate better."
The most memorable exchanges came between Pawlenty and Bachmann, the congresswoman from his home state. The ex-governor accused Bachmann of not achieving anything in Congress. She shot back by charging Pawlenty with support for a carbon tax, mandatory health insurance coverage and bigger government. "That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me," she said.
In broad strokes, the debate offered little new in terms of policy prescriptions from the field of GOP candidates. The most specific moment came when all of the candidates were asked if they would reject a deal that included 10-to-1 spending cuts to tax increases. All eight candidates, each of whom reiterated throughout the night they would never raise taxes, raised their hand to signal they would reject the deal.
Romney perhaps offered the only new idea, although it’s one that could land him in trouble in a general election. He said he would support no further extensions of federal benefits for the long-term unemployed unless the system is overhauled to create individual personal accounts.
Below is the National Journal’s live blog of the debate.
10:48 p.m.Raising the debt ceiling gave Obama "a blank check for $2.4 trillion," said Bachmann. The decision by Standard & Poor's to downgrade the nation's debt rating was based on the credit rating company's belief that "we don't have the ability to repay our debt," she said. "I was proved right." In fact Standard & Poors targeted the "political brinksmanship" of the nation's leaders, which "highlights what we see as America's governance becoming less stable."
10:40 p.m. Romney said he would not sign a continuation of unemployment benefits, set to expire soon, without overhauling the system because the country is spending too much money on them now.
"If I were president right now, I would go to Congress for a new system ... I would not put in place a continuation of current plan," he said.
He outlined a plan for the unemployed to receive benefits from a personal account -- although he did not provide any further details of where the money would come from or how much it would provide.
10:37 p.m.Gay marriage prompted lively differences among the candidates. "I believe in civil unions," Huntsman said, to stony silence in the hall. Paul wonders why the government bothers to take a position. "I don't want the federal government to have the marriage police," the congressman says. "Why do we have to have a licence to get married?" An incredulous Santorum says he is the only one of the presidential candidates to have campaignedfor the ouster of Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of gay marriage. Bachmann: "I have an absolute unblemished record when it comes to this issue of man-woman marriage."
10:28 p.m. In a moment that will surely be replayed endlessly on Friday, moderator Byron York asked whether, as he said Bachmann said during her 2006 campaign, she would be submissive to her husband. A loud of chorus of boos continued for some time before the congresswoman responded.
"Thank-you for that question, Byron," she said, with a steely smile.
She said she and her husband have been married for 33 years.
"That's how we operate our marriage: We respect each other, and love each other."
10:18 p.m. It's Ron Paul versus the rest of the stage. The Texas congressman has engaged in several heated squabbles with Bachmann and Santorum (who is struggling to even get a question) over the danger posed by Iran and whether terrorists should be tried in civilian courts.
In short, Paul argued the United States has meddles in Iran's affairs since the 1950s -- the real source of the problem -- and the country doesn't pose a threat to America even as it allegedly tries to develop a nuclear weapon. "We just plain don't mind our own business," Paul exclaimed.
That drew a heated response from Santorum, who said Iran poses a grave threat to American and existential threat to Israel.
"Anyone that suggests Iran is not a threat to this country ... is obviously not seeing the world very clearly," he said.
10:14 p.m. President Obama's foreign policy is under attack from all sides. Huntsman, until recently the president's envoy to Beijing, says that the president isn't doing enough to engage the Chinese. "It would be a great thing to have a president who understood China," says Huntsman, referring to guess who? Pawlenty accuses Obama of being too soft on Syria and too tough on Israel. "He repeatedly sticks his thumb in Israel's eye," he says. And Paul wonders why Obama is so preoccupied with preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapons. "Don't get involved in these wars," he says, to cheers. "Just bring our troops home."
10:05 p.m. Romney, as he did last debate in June, emphasized that it's time for Afghanistan troops to begin securing their own peace -- as long as a withdrawal of American troops is in line what the generals want.
"We have helped people of Afghanistan establish freedom from the Taliban, but now we're at point where they have to earn and keep that freedom themselves," Romney said.
10:02 p.m. Bachmann isn't buying Romney's argument on health care: That what's not OK for the nation isn't OK for the country. Referring to the mandate to buy health insurance that Romney signed into law, she says: "This is clearly an unconstituional action whether it's done at federal level or whether it's done at the state level."
9:52 p.m.It's a moment we've all been waiting for: After backing down last debate, would Pawlenty criticize Romney for his health care plan in Massachusetts? He didn't miss his chance tonight, saying himself he "didn't want to miss that chance again."
"Mitt, look, Obamacare was patterned after Mitt's plan in Massachusetts," Pawlenty said. "And for Mitt to say they're not the same plan ... it just isn't credible. And that's why i called it 'Obamneycare,' and I think it's a fair label, and I'm happy to call it that again."
He emphasized that the GOP nominee needs to be able to show contrasts with Obama, not similarities.
Asked to respond to Pawlenty, Romney quipped, "I think I liked Tim's answer in the last debate better." He then returned to a familiar refrain in defending his plan, saying that he did what was right for his state but that every state needs to figure out what's best for them. Pressed by moderator Wallace -- who's had an eventful debate so far -- to explain where in the Constitution he's given that power, Romney shot back that he had read the Massachusetts constitution and it allowed him to do so.
9:50 p.m. Get ready for this to be a talking point for Democrats on Friday: All eight candidates were on stage were asked whether they would have rejected a deal with a 10-to-1 ration in spending cuts to tax increases. All eight raised their hands, indicating they would not raise taxes under any circumstances.
9:47 p.m. Minnesota's rivalrous twins are stealing the show. For the second time tonight, Bachmann and Pawlenty tangled in personal terms. Bachmann accused the former Minnesota governor of "cutting a deal with special interests" to attach a cigarette tax hike to a bill that included an antiabortion measure. That's the only reason why she, as a state legislator, voted for the tax hike, she said. "You can get money wrong, but you can't get life wrong," Bachmann said. "I chose life." Pawlenty blasted back accusing Bachmann of "leading and failing" in Congress. Bachmann accused Pawlenty of waffling. "We need to have a president of the Untied States who stands firm on their convictions." The squabbling between the two Minnesotans went on so long that Santorum finally interrupted. "I haven't had a chance to say a whole lot," he said.
9:41 p.m. Romney was grilled about reportedly touting a $1 billion in tax increases to Standard & Poor's to receive a credit-rating boost while governor. The ex-governor denied he ever raised taxes -- suggesting he only cut taxes 19 times -- then quickly pivoted to contrasting his record with President Obama's, blaming the country's downgrade on his leadership.
"That's because our president simply doesn't understand how to lead, and how to grow an economy," he said.
9:40 p.m. Braving an icy response from the audience, Paul argues against requiring employers to verify the legal status of their hires to crack down on illegal immigration. "I don't like putting the burden on the businessmen to be the policemen," said Paul. The answer to illegal immigration, he argues, is bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan to secure the U.S. borders. "We pay more attention to borders overseas," he said.
9:36 p.m. Asked about immigration, Romney stressed that he wanted to attract the "best and the brightest" to still come to America. But he emphasized the country needs to increase border security and crack down on employers who hire illegal workers.
"We are a nation of immigration. We love legal immigration, but for legal immigration to work, we have to secure our border and crack down on employers who hire workers illegally."
9:34 p.m. Huntsman fends off suggestions that he's too liberal for the Republican Party. "I'm running on my record and I am proud of my record," said Huntsman, describing himself as a "conservative problem-solver." But he would say neither yes nor no when asked whether he favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. His plan is to first "prove to the American people that we can secure the border," Huntsman said. "I'm not going to talk about anything else until we get it done."
9:26 p.m. Fireworks between Gingrich and moderator Wallace. Asked by Wallace about the fact that most of his campaign staff has resigned, Gingrich shot back, "I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions." Pressed by Wallace why his record wasn't fair game, the former House speaker criticized him and the rest of the media for not asking more about policy positions. "I think there's too much attention paid to press corps. to campaign minutia and not enough attention paid to basic ideas that distinguish us from Barack Obama."