AMES, Iowa — For months, Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination focused their criticisms on the record of Democratic President Barack Obama. On Thursday, they fought to defend their own records.
For two hours, eight of the candidates clashed sharply over their resumes in a fiery debate that saw the first face-to-face attacks in the fast-developing campaign.
The two Minnesotans in the contest lashed out at each other, with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty accusing Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., of having no record of accomplishment in Congress. "Nonexistent," he sneered. Bachmann shot back that Pawlenty was just another version of President Obama.
As they fought, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney defended his record as an investment banker whose businesses often cut jobs, and as a governor who once boasted of tax increases while arguing for a bond rating upgrade for his state.
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Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lashed out at questions about turmoil in his own campaign. "Mickey Mouse," he called the questions.
Watching it all from Texas was the man who's waiting in the wings to jump in with a late entry that's certain to shake up the race.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was not invited to the debate — and will not be on the ballot for the Iowa straw poll Saturday — because he has not formally declared his candidacy. But he will announce his campaign in a speech Saturday in South Carolina, then sweep into Iowa on Sunday.
The debate's immediate audience was in Iowa, the first state to vote next winter. Bachmann has leapt to an early lead there, threatening to eclipse Pawlenty in their own Midwest neighborhood.
Pawlenty had the most at stake in the debate, fighting to jump-start a faltering campaign that was hurt when he delivered a tepid performance at a June debate in New Hampshire.
Pawlenty came out blazing this time, first taking on Bachmann, then Romney.
"It is an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent," he said of Bachmann.
She retorted that Pawlenty supported environmental "cap and trade" legislation that conservatives hate, that he "praised" mandates that would force people to buy health insurance, as the new national health care law will do, and that he once said the era of small government is over.
"That sounds more like Barack Obama," she said.
Of her own record, she said she fought against the health care law, opposed raising the government's debt ceiling, fought the "cap and trade" energy proposal and pushed to overturn a law that phases out incandescent light bulbs.
"I was at the tip of the spear fighting against the implementation of Obamacare in the United States Congress," she said.
"She fought for less government spending, we got a lot more," Pawlenty said. "She led the effort against Obamacare, we got Obamacare. She led the effort against TARP, we got TARP. She said she's got a titanium spine. It's not her spine we're worried about, it's her record of results. If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you're killing us."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum jumped in as well, criticizing Bachmann's fervent opposition to raising the nation's debt ceiling under any condition, calling it "more showmanship than leadership."
Turning personal, Pawlenty criticized Bachmann's truthfulness. "She's got a record of misstating and making false statements," he said.
And he hit Romney for enacting a state health care law in Massachusetts that required people to buy insurance, much as the national law does.
After flubbing a chance to criticize Romney to his face in the last debate, Pawlenty leapt at the opportunity. "I don't want to miss that chance again," Pawlenty said.
Romney said his health plan was not like the national law because it applied only to his state.
He also was asked about his record on jobs, as an investment banker when he acquired a paper company and it cut jobs, and as governor when the state ranked 47th out of 50 in job growth.
"Let me tell you how the real economy works," Romney responded. "When I was at Bain Capital, we invested in about 100 different companies. Not all of them worked. ... They don't always go well. ... But ... in those 100 businesses we invested in, tens of thousands of jobs, net-net, were created."
Romney sidestepped a question about his record of arguing successfully for a ratings upgrade from Standard & Poor's, the agency that just downgraded the U.S. debt.
Romney boasted last week that he'd managed to get the upgrade for his state through "sound fiscal management." What he did not say is that he based his pitch for the upgrade on the fact that Massachusetts had cut spending AND raised taxes, according to state files obtained by the Politico website.
Asked about the report, Romney said, "I don't believe in raising taxes, and as governor I cut taxes 19 times."
Also participating in the debate: business executive Herman Cain, former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
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