Republican presidential candidates greet the audience as they take the… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Reporting from Ames, Iowa — In the most combative encounter of the 2012 contest, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and other mid-tier candidates tangled repeatedly over their records and positions on the economy and other issues in a televised debate Thursday night.
The contentious exchanges reflected the heightened stakes for several candidates facing a stern test this weekend in an Iowa straw ballot with a history of culling the weakest contenders from the field. The debate came two days ahead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's official entry into the race, a development several candidates said they welcomed.
Presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney was able to steer clear of the most contentious exchanges, though he was forced to defend his jobs record as governor of Massachusetts and in private business, as well as his state's healthcare plan.
He and others watched as Rep. Bachmann, considered a favorite in Iowa, had to bat back multiple attacks from her fellow Minnesotan, former Gov. Pawlenty.
Pawlenty criticized what he called her "nonexistent" record of accomplishment in Congress and history "of misstating and making false statements."
"She said she's got a titanium spine. It's not her spine we're worried about. It's her record of results," Pawlenty said, to a mixture of applause and boos. "If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you're killing us."
Bachmann responded that she was "at the tip of the spear" fighting President Obama's healthcare plan and the debt limit increase, which prompted Pawlenty to remark that "leading and failing is not the objective."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who could be forced from the race if he falls short in Saturday's straw vote, sparred with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas over sanctions against Iran after Paul said — as part of a policy of reducing American involvement overseas — that sanctions were not an effective way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and that it was "natural" for the country to want one.
Santorum, who wrote legislation that created the sanctions, appeared to be in disbelief.
"Iran is not Iceland, Ron," he said. "Iran is a country that has been at war with us since 1979. Iran is a country that has killed more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and [Afghans] have."
Jon Huntsman Jr. didn't make much of a splash in his debate debut, though his criticism of U.S. policy toward China was noteworthy since he had served as Obama's ambassador to Beijing until this spring.
"We need a strategic dialogue at the highest levels between the United States and China. That is not happening," he said. Huntsman also deplored what he described as Washington's "zero leadership" on illegal immigration.
The candidates met on the same day that Perry, who has been doing his best to upstage the announced contenders, confirmed that he was entering the race. Perry, who will visit the early-voting states of South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa this weekend, will announce his candidacy Saturday, his spokesman Mark Miner told multiple media outlets.
Moderator Bret Baier of Fox News, which co-sponsored the debate with the Washington Examiner, asked the candidates whether Perry was outsmarting them by skipping Saturday's straw poll. None of them said they were worried.
"That's just one more politician, and that makes this business problem-solver stand out that much more," said Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose candidacy has floundered, argued repeatedly with the debate panel over what he described as "gotcha" questions when his internal campaign problems and contradictory statements came up.
Santorum said he would reject a deficit reduction plan if even one dollar of every 10 in savings came from a tax increase. All of the other candidates indicated by a show of hands that they agreed.
Romney was asked about job cuts at companies acquired by Bain Capital, the venture capital firm he founded. He responded that business investments "don't always go well." But he said his business experience had taught him "why we lose jobs, how we gain jobs, and overall, in those hundred businesses we invested in, tens of thousands of jobs net-net were created."
The former Massachusetts governor, who is not competing in the straw poll and had less at stake than his rivals, also defended the legality of the individual healthcare mandate he signed into law five years ago.
Bachmann called that initiative unconstitutional, but libertarian Paul, a favorite of the sometimes raucous crowd in Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State University, came to Romney's defense, saying states had that "leeway under our Constitution."
Earlier, during a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fair, Romney told a heckler: "Corporations are people, my friend." Romney, who is running on his background in business, was baited by a man in the audience who shouted a demand for higher taxes on corporations. Romney had just said he opposed raising taxes "on people" to close the shortfall in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid funding.
The Democratic National Committee, which has been attacking the GOP front-runner as out of touch with ordinary people, seized on the remark. It fired off emails to reporters, including one from DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse: "This is what Mitt Romney is going to run on?"
James Oliphant of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.