Bachmann, Pawlenty Spar in Iowa Debate, but Status Quo Survives

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Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, saw the first face-to-face hostility of the 2012 campaign. After an early round of self-congratulation and obligatory shots at President Obama — “You are finished in 2012 and you will be a one-term president,” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann roared before former Governor Tim Pawlenty promised to cook dinner for anyone who could “find” Obama’s entitlement reform plans — the candidates began to focus their ire on each other in a shared forum for the first time.

Given a second chance to ding Mitt Romney for the similarities between the health reform legislation he championed as governor of Massachusetts and the federal law passed by Democrats in 2010, Pawlenty got in a few whacks on the front-runner, and Bachmann piled on. But that exchange was mild compared to two spats that broke out between the Minnesotans.

Pawlenty tried to draw a sharp distinction between his eight years as governor and Bachmann’s thin record in Congress, criticizing her for failing to stop assorted Democratic evils. “Her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” he said. “That’s not going to be good enough.” He even went as far as to call her a liar: “She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements.”

Bachmann gave as good as she got, presenting a concise invoice of Pawlenty’s transgressions against conservative orthodoxy: establishing cap-and-trade, praising an individual health insurance mandate and so on. “You said the era of small government was over. That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me,” she said to approving applause.

Pawlenty responded by once again pointing out the obvious: that Bachmann’s opposition to any number of Democratic initiatives didn’t actually reverse them. “If that’s your record of results, please stop, because you’re killing us,” he said. “Leading and failing is not the objective.” In a later exchange, Bachmann accused Pawlenty of strong-arming her into supporting a Minnesota cigarette tax by tying it to an abortion measure.

Beyond that — and a few prickly back-and-forths between Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Fox News moderator Chris Wallace — Thursday’s debate was fairly tame. If you watched the last one, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R. – El Dorado) answered most questions by patiently explaining how returning to the gold standard would solve America’s ills; Gingrich packed more Ronald Reagan references into each sentence than 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy (He made a Six Sigma reference too!), Rick Santorum mentioned that he wasn’t getting enough airtime a lot, and pizza magnate Herman Cain mellifluously told the audience how great it was that he’s never been a politician. Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China and a new addition to the dais, added very little. He was eminently staid, moderate and forgettable. None of the three bode well for his campaign.

It was appropriate then that this debate saw a conflict between Pawlenty and Bachmann, but little more. The Ames straw poll on Saturday will be a crucial test for both those candidates and the former likely needs a breakout performance to keep his White House prospects from fading altogether. But the broader contours of the race remain unchanged. Romney made no glaring errors and even managed to inspire a few rounds of applause. As frontrunner, the status quo is his best friend. If the Republican presidential contest is due for some radical shakeup, it will have to wait at least another day. On Saturday, when Rick Perry enters the race and Pawlenty, Bachmann et al. face each other at Ames, we’ll learn a lot more about the 2012 presidential election we did from Thursday’s display.