The Republican contenders for president gathered at Iowa State University Thursday night, going toe-to-toe in the latest Fox News debate. Coming at the tail end of what has been labeled the worst period of the Barack Obama presidency — record-low approval ratings, an S&P credit-rating downgrade, stock market hysteria and the death of 30 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — there was obviously plenty of Obama bashing to go around. But this time, unlike in previous debates, the candidates also turned on one another.
With specific questions that pitted the candidates against one other, the moderators were certainly gunning for confrontation. And with a boisterous, constantly cheering and jeering audience (I swear I heard Arsenio-style barking at certain points), the debate took on even more of a Cage Match vibe. Here are some of the standout moments from the two-hour event.
Bachmann vs. Pawlenty Smackdown
After heavy criticism for backing down from an earlier challenge of Mitt Romney's health care plan in the last debate, Tim Pawlenty repeatedly threw barbs at Michele Bachmann. An unfazed Bachmann repeatedly swung back. A typical (although abbreviated here) exchange throughout the night went something like this:
Pawlenty: It's an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishments and results is nonexistent. That's not going to be good enough for president of the United States, to serve in that capacity.
Bachmann: You said the era of small government is over. That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me … When it came to health care, I brought tens of thousands of Americans to Washington to fight the individual mandate. I didn't praise it. When it came to cap and trade, I fought it with everything that was in me. I introduced the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act so people could all purchase the light bulb of their choice!
Pawlenty: She says that she's fighting for these things. She fought for less government spending; we got a lot more. She led the effort against ObamaCare, we got ObamaCare. She led the effort against TARP, we got TARP … If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you're killing us!
Bachmann: Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama ran Congress, but I gave them a run for their money … I was effectively taking them on on nearly every argument they put forward. When others ran, I fought!
Romney Doesn't Quite Answer the Questions
Front-runner Mitt Romney, seemingly glad to let the other candidates snipe at one another, focused on avoiding stumbles and mostly evading notice. When asked direct questions, he found ways to dodge.
Q: If you were president, you would have vetoed the debt-ceiling bill?
A: Look, I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food. What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States … I would have cut federal spending, capped federal spending and then worked for a balanced-budget amendment.
Q: Does the government have the right to make a citizen buy a good or service (as in the individual mandate under your Massachusetts health care plan)?
A: I think you have to repeal ObamaCare, and I will. I'll put in place a plan that allows states to craft their own programs.
Q: Would you sign a bill to extend unemployment insurance?
A: Surely, we're going to help those people who can't find other ways to care for themselves, but the most important thing we're talking about tonight is making sure that President Obama is replaced by someone who can get the economy going again. That's what this debate is really about.
Let's Not Make a Deal
Asked whether they would refuse to accept a deficit-reduction plan with a 10-1 ratio between spending cuts and tax increases, all of the candidates said that they would walk away from it. The intention may have been to show how strongly they feel about not raising taxes, but the refusal to say yes to a 10-to-1 deal made them look less than serious about actually reducing the debt.
Cain Still Stumbles on Foreign Policy
Herman Cain admitted that he wasn't up on his foreign policy game in the last two debates but insisted that he's learned a lot more about Middle East issues since then. Unfortunately, he did a poor job explaining his plan to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — by making the U.S. energy independent through domestic oil production?
"The head of Iran, Ahmadinejad, said he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. I take that very seriously," said Cain. "That being said, there's more to foreign policy than bombs and bullets … If we get serious about maximizing all of our energy resources in this country, we can become a player on the world market. As the price of oil goes down, it puts an economic squeeze on Iran."
However, Cain continues to have strong appeal among many Republicans. While I don't understand why he thinks Shariah law threatens to infiltrate the U.S. court system, the crowd went wild when he stated, "Never will I apologize for saying that Shariah law does not belong in the courts of the United States of America."
Santorum's Slow Realization That He's Not Taken Seriously
Forty-five minutes into the debate, as Bachmann and Pawlenty went back and forth on Round 2 of their battle royale (this time over a Minnesota law that raised taxes on cigarettes), Rick Santorum interjected. "There are a few people here who have not had a chance to say a whole lot," he said. Yet the moderator ignored the poor guy's plea, giving Bachmann a chance to retort to Pawlenty, again.
To get some attention out of the event, Santorum pumped up his stances against gay marriage and abortion. "We are a nation that has values. We are a nation that was built on a moral enterprise," he said of states that recognize gay marriage. "And states don't have the right to tramp over those because of the 10th amendment."
On his desire to have all abortion outlawed, including in cases of rape and incest, he posed some interesting "pro-woman" logic by saying, "We in America should try to help women in those terrible situations who have been traumatized already. To put them through another trauma of an abortion I think is too much to ask."
Newt Gingrich Snaps at the Moderators
Scolding the moderators for "playing Mickey Mouse games," Gingrich bristled at nearly every question. Asked about whether he's a serious candidate when most of his campaign staff jumped ship, he brushed it aside, saying he intends to "run on ideas." On his shifting position about Obama's involvement in Libya, he called it a "gotcha question."
Ron Paul's Anti-War Stance
Getting some boos (but also cheers) for his opposition to U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ron Paul argued that the U.S. is in the region for no good reason. At his most bombastic moment of the night, he accused Santorum of "war propaganda" for his concern over nuclear weapons in Iran, saying that the U.S. was wrong to intervene in Iran's regime change in the 1950s: "We just don't plain mind our own business, that's our problem!"
Huntsman Fails to Connect
For Jon Huntsman, who formally entered the presidential rate less than two months ago, this was essentially his introduction to America. But with his moderate positions, he failed to connect with the conservative audience. His night got off to a bad start with his first question, about his economic plan ("It's coming"), and things failed to accelerate from there.
Still, even though his past endorsements for cap and trade, his support for civil unions and his service in the Obama administration as ambassador to China run counter to the Republican base, he proudly stood by his record.