Pawlenty and Bachmann Spar in Iowa Debate

Written by Tim Mak on Thursday August 11, 2011

A spirited debate tonight on Fox News, but one where the winner ultimately turned about to be someone who said the least substantively.

Frontrunner and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney escaped unscathed - no one seriously challenged him, and with expectations that he would be targeted, this alone makes him the winner.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman didn't have the spark he needed to bring to the debate. While he deserved credit for standing up for gay civil unions - a politically suicidal move in Iowa - he didn't do so assertively. Asked by the moderator why those who oppose civil unions are wrong, Huntsman said, "they're not wrong," and that states should decide. But the converse of that statement is, "I'm not right!"

Huntsman was also asked about why he hadn't put an economic proposal on the table yet, and his answer sounded shaky. The former governor said that he had only been campaigning for six weeks - not an acceptable answer for someone who is running to president of the United States.

The most talked-about answer that Rep. Michele Bachmann gave would have to be when she was asked what it meant to be submissive to her husband, a question asked by the Washington Examiner's Byron York. The question was greeted by boos in the crowd, but Bachmann took the question with poise and said that 'submission' meant respect for one another.

Ron Paul said he was unconcerned with Iran obtaining a nuke, and suggested that he wasn't necessarily opposed to slavery - in the hypothetical that a state would be free to legalize it - just that it was out of style and wouldn't be implemented nowadays.

Pawlenty - what to say? He made a few zingers at the beginning and took some shots at Romney and Bachmann. But his performance fell far short of what it needed to be - the aggressiveness and assertiveness he needed to bring to the table was lacking. A disappointing showing this weekend will be one of the events of his campaign.


For the most recent polling of the Iowa caucuses, click here.

RCP Average: Bachmann (26%), Romney (22%), Pawlenty (8.2%), Paul (7.4%), Cain (6.4%), Gingrich (4.6%), Santorum (3.8%).

Pre-Debate Analysis:

Tim Pawlenty

Conventional wisdom says that former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty needs a win in Iowa to stay competitive in the race. With the news that Rick Perry is running for the Republican nomination, Pawlenty faces the challenge of proving that he can distinguish himself in the packed field.

Looming large over Pawlenty’s involvement in the debate tonight will be the memory of how he backed down during the New Hampshire debate. Here’s a refresher: the Sunday before the New Hampshire debate in June, Pawlenty had gone after Gov. Mitt Romney’s health care plan, styling it ‘Obamneycare’ on Fox News Sunday. During the debate, Pawlenty was asked by CNN’s John King why he chose that term – Pawlenty demurred, instead referring to his achievements in Minnesota, and opponents attacked him on this as a supposed sign of weakness.

No doubt Pawlenty will be thinking of these criticisms tonight – so watch for him to come out swinging aggressively.

Michele Bachmann

The most recent poll for the Iowa caucuses, by Rasmussen Reports, had Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann ahead of the crowded pack – even though Mitt Romney leads nationally. As one of the front-runners to winning the Ames straw poll in Iowa, she has to keep an even hand and fend off attacks – some of which may come from two scathing profiles written of her in the past week, one written in the New Yorker, the other in Newsweek.

Rep. Bachmann outperformed expectations during the New Hampshire debate by giving short, crisp answers to debate questions. In New Hampshire, she put plenty of emphasis on her 23 foster children – watch for that trend to continue today.

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be on the defensive this evening – as the national front-runner for the Republican nomination, he has more than a few targets on his back. So far, criticism of Romney has not stuck – despite his many vulnerabilities.

Watch for him to emphasize his business experience over his political experience – something that he’s angling for in order to win votes from small businessmen and entrepreneurial-minded voters.

Since Tim Pawlenty has a bit of a chip on his shoulder from the last debate, expect him to have to fend off some aggressive criticism from the Minnesota Governor. Romney’s campaign has been low-key, and one should expect that his debate performance tonight will be as well.

Ron Paul

Texas Congressman Ron Paul is expected to place well on the Ames Straw Poll, and his supporters are boisterous crowd members, judging by previous debates and public appearances.

As always, watch for the most libertarian member of the debate group to flow against the typical answers of the rest of the debaters, especially on the issues of drug legalization, monetary policy and the Federal Reserve, as well as American involvement abroad.

Herman Cain

The former pizza magnate performed surprisingly well during the last debate in New Hampshire – a Fox News focus group almost unanimously declared him the winner of the debate. His style has been slim on substance, however – many of his answers are merely other questions. This is a chance to show he’s been reading up on policy and politics, and show that he really has the intellectual abilities required to become president. For whatever you might think of him, his populist style of debating appears appealing to a substantial portion of the Republican electorate.

Jon Huntsman

The former Utah Governor has failed to spark excitement amongst Iowa Republicans, and will mostly be speaking to a national crowd when he debates this afternoon. The question for him will be whether he can encourage grassroots Republicans to get excited about his candidacy, which up until now has been struggling. He has been promoting himself as a moderate Republican, but the key for him will be to show moderation in policy, but not in temperament.

Rick Santorum

The former Senator from Pennsylvannia is running on social issues, something that he should have an audience for in Iowa. But he’s been unable to pick up the mantle of, say, Mike Huckabee. His latest hit? When Texas Gov. Rick Perry – now reportedly announcing his run for the presidency this Saturday – told a crowd that New York’s gay marriage law was a state rights issue, saying, “that’s their business, and that’s fine by me.” Santorum was quick to respond, saying, “it IS our business, and that’s NOT fine by me.” Watch for Santorum to draw parallels between morality and economics whenever he can, a la Huckabee.

Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich is still running for president? The former House speaker’s campaign has suffered a meltdown - everything from communications failures, like calling the Paul Ryan budget – which virtually every House Republican supports – “radical”; to his entire senior staff resigning on one day in June.

He’s going to need to do something spectacular to reboot his campaign – and even that may not achieve much of anything. Some may scoff at ‘conventional wisdom’, but the prevailing mood of the press corps and strategists does have a substantial effect on aspects of the campaign, like fundraising. With a bad reputation around his neck – it seems as if Gingrich is a ‘dead man walking’.