Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty Take Gloves Off At Iowa Debate

ABC News' Amy Walter ( @amyewlater) and Michael Falcone ( @michaelpfalcone) report:

AMES, Iowa -- The fierce battle between Republican presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann that has been waged at separate campaign stops across Iowa this week came to a head on Thursday when the two met for the first time on a debate stage here. Though they joined six of their fellow rivals, including front-runner Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who made his debate debut, the sparring between the two Minnesotans was so intense that, at times, it seemed like two-hour exchange was a one-on-one exchange between them. Bachmann and Pawlenty, who are both competing in Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll, a crucial test of organizational support, have the most at stake in this state. And, they wasted little time in attacking each other in an effort to gain the upper hand heading into this weekend. Pawlenty did not back off the frequent criticism of Bachmann he deploys in his campaign stump speeches, saying that she does not have enough executive experience to be president and no record of accomplishment in Congress. For her part, Bachmann said that Pawlenty’s record as governor of Minnesota “sounds a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.” At one point, she turned toward Pawlenty, accusing him on implementing a cap-and-trade energy policy, a government-mandated health insurance plan and of falling short of his promise to shrink the size of government. Pawlenty shook his head as she spoke. “I’m really surprised that Congresswoman Bachmann would say those things,” he fired back. “She has a record of misstating and making false statements.” Turning Bachmann’s frequently-used line -- that she has a “titanium spine” -- against her, Pawlenty said, “It’s not her spine we’re worried about. It’s her record of results.” In defending her vote for a Pawlenty-backed cigarette tax hike, Bachmann argued that the then-Governor “cut a deal with special interest groups,” that threatened pro-life policies. When the candidates weren’t arguing with each other, President Obama remained public enemy number one for the contenders for the GOP nomination. They offered almost universal criticism for the debt ceiling deal he signed into law earlier this month. "I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food," Romney said, referring to the debt agreement, which raises the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. "What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States." The candidates gathered in Ames on the same day that advisers for soon-to-be presidential candidate Rick Perry confirmed that the Texas governor would officially enter the presidential race this weekend. “I’m very pleased that he’s coming in because he represents the status quo,” fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul said. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain dismissed Perry as “just one more politician.” Huntsman said that Perry “broadens and expands this conversation about job creation.” It wasn’t just Bachmann and Pawlenty who clashed. Rep. Ron Paul and former Senator Rick Santorum got into a lengthy back and forth regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Paul arguing that Iran doesn’t pose a threat to America’s safety. “Iran is not Iceland, Ron” Santorum chided. “Anyone who suggests Iran is not a threat to the Middle East is not seeing the world very clearly.” Left out of the back and forth -- and barely visible during the two hour debate -- were the two candidates who aren’t competing in Saturday’s balloting: Romney and Huntsman. Despite his standing as the national frontrunner, the other seven candidates on stage essentially avoided taking any shots at the former Massachusetts Governor. Pawlenty tried to take an early shot at Romney’s wealth that fell flat. Given an opportunity for a do-over in his demur on “Romneycare” in June’s New Hampshire debate, Pawlenty was more pointed, but not particularly effective in his attacks on Romney’s health care record. However, in the hours before the debate, Democrats attacked Romney for saying earlier in the day that “corporations are people.” Romney’s statement came in response to a hostile questioner who challenged his position on corporate tax rates during a speaking appearance at the Iowa State Fair. "Corporations are people, my friend," Romney told the heckler. "Of course they are -- everything that corporations earn ultimately goes to people." In fact, Democrats wanted to ensure that Romney didn’t get away with avoiding criticism. Of the seven “Rapid Response” emails sent out by the DNC during the debate, five specifically mentioned Romney. Perhaps trying to limit the damage of his statement, in a response to a question about the economy, Romney noted that “capitalism is about people, not just capital” Even so he repeated his call to bring corporate tax rates in line with other countries. “If you spend your life in the private sector and you understand how jobs come and how they go,” Romney said, “you understand that what President Obama has done is the exact opposite of what needs to be done.”

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