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Gloves come off in second GOP presidential debate

August 11, 2011|By James Oliphant
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty…)

Reporting from Ames, Iowa — A sometimes sleepy Republican race for president sprang to life Thursday night, showing some flash and fire, and highlighting deepening fissures between the candidates.

Just days before a key straw poll vote in Iowa, eight contenders for the nomination mixed it up on a stage on the campus at Iowa State University. But the poll, like the debate, threatened to be overshadowed by the news that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is set to enter -- and potentially upend -- the race.

Though Perry was not in Iowa, his name was on just about everyone's lips in Ames; even the candidates were asked about him. And his presence could spell doom for candidates who have been living on the margins, such as Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.

The pressure Thursday also fell on Michele Bachmann, whose campaign has been on an upswing since the first presidential debate two months ago in New Hampshire. Bachmann faces a potential threat in Perry; both candidates will heavily court evangelical voters here in Iowa in advance of next year's caucuses.

Bachmann spent much of the debate restating, in strong terms, her opposition to raising the nation's debt ceiling; she was critical of the deal reached earlier this month on Capitol Hill. She contended that the downgrade given the nation's credit rating earlier this month by Standard and Poor's vindicated her view.

"I was proved right in my position," Bachmann said.

But when pressed early in the debate, Bachmann provided few details on how she would boost the troubled economy, in contrast with many of her competitors. She was also slammed by Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, who called her unqualified to be president.

"Look, she's done wonderful things in her life," said Pawlenty, who is fighting to stay afloat in the race. "But it's an undisputable fact. In Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent. "

He also accused Bachmann, his top rival in Iowa, of repeatedly making false and misleading statements.

In a rough-and-tumble exchange, Bachmann compared Pawlenty to President Obama, citing his past support of policies such as capping greenhouse gases. She continued hitting the populist notes that have driven her campaign forward.

"People are looking for a champion," she said.

Bachmann was also asked whether she would follow some Christian teachings and "submit" to her husband, Marcus, should she become president, a question that elicited boos from the crowd in the university auditorium. She responded by equating "submission" with "respect."

"We respect each other; we love each other," she said. "I'm so grateful we've been able to build a home together."

Perhaps the largest beneficiary of the back-and-forth between Bachmann and Pawlenty was Mitt Romney, the nominal GOP front-runner. As in the first debate in New Hampshire, Romney largely escaped attack, although he didn't go completely unscathed.

Pawlenty was given a second chance to attack Romney over the state healthcare plan enacted into law while he was governor of Massachusetts.

Pawlenty's refusal to do so in the first debate was widely viewed as damaging his campaign, and he didn't make the same mistake. He told Romney that claiming his plan was different than the Democratic healthcare law backed by Obama "isn't credible."

Romney gave the response he's provided several times over, saying that his plan was intended for his state only, not the nation, and again vowed to repeal the Democratic bill should he be elected.

Romney's Mormon beliefs were also raised, in a question to candidate Herman Cain, who said some Americans, particularly in the South, needed more information about the faith.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas fell into a contentious exchange over the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. Paul restated his opposition to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning fervent applause from some in the arena and demonstrating that he remained a threat to win Saturday's straw poll.

The debate was a coming-out party of sorts for Huntsman, the former Utah governor and Obama's ambassador to China. It was a chance for the candidate to introduce himself to the public. He spoke of his credentials as a tax-cutter and job creator in Utah.

But his conservative credentials were questioned by Fox News Channel's Chris Wallace, who noted Huntsman's support for cap-and-trade policies and same-sex marriages, as well as his role in the Obama administration.

Huntsman said he was proud of his ambassadorship, saying it was an opportunity to serve the country. "I'll take that philosophy to my grave," he said. He spoke admiringly of a globalized economy, but said that environmental regulation in the United States had made manufacturing jobs scarce. "We don't make things anymore in this country," he lamented.

He also restated his support for same-sex civil unions, putting him squarely at odds with his rivals. "I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality," he said.

Pawlenty had obviously made an effort to toughen his rhetoric for the second debate. He called on Obama to cancel his planned vacation in New England later this month, saying he was "missing in action" on the economy.

At one point, Pawlenty joked that he would cook dinner or mow the lawn of anyone who could point to Obama's plan to preserve Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Except, he said, in a veiled shot at Romney's wealth, he would limit Romney to "one acre."

"That's fine," Romney said with a smile.

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