AMES, Iowa – Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter wasn’t allowed into the Republican debate, but somehow he wrangled a media pass and showed up to give his take on the proceedings. "How are you going to recover from not being in the debate?" a Michigan reporter asked him. “The first question is, have they recovered from being in it?” McCotter replied.
Minnesota nice and Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment (thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican) are so over. The White House hopefuls onstage went after each other as if their political lives were hanging in the balance. And that was a wonderful thing, in the view of Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn.
“It’s always healthy to have competition between the candidates. The purpose of this process is to make sure we have the strongest possible general-election candidate against Barack Obama,” Strawn said.
Rick Perry was not in the room or the state, but he had an ally in the postdebate spin room. “It was encouraging,” Bob Schuman, of an independent committee called Americans for Rick Perry, said of the two-hour GOP slugfest. Why? “Nobody really jumped out at me.”
The debate offered a chance for the candidates to make a strong impression in advance of the Iowa straw poll on Saturday. The poll is a brutal winnower of the field, sometimes shrinking it within days, and no one has more at stake than Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty had to prove he had a backbone as stiff as Michele Bachmann’s titanium spine. He gave Mitt Romney a pass at the last GOP debate but more than made up for that by going after him on “Obamneycare” and opening two other lines of attack: that Romney “ran up spending” over 40 percent while he was Massachusetts governor, and two out of three of his judicial selections were “pro-choice, Democrat, or liberal.” He depicted Bachmann as a protest candidate who may have led many fights but who lost all of them.
The spin from Pawlenty world: Bachmann and others came ready to attack him, proof that Pawlenty’s gaining traction. “It’s a really good sign when you’re the top target,” said campaign manager Nick Ayers. His own personal top target was Bachmann. “This is exactly what we can expect out of people in Congress,” Ayers told a circle of scribes at the Hilton Coliseum, a 14,000-seat basketball arena. “They’re great at talking and they’re not so good at walking.”
It’s the same tack taken by Rick Santorum, who accused Bachmann of “showmanship, not leadership,” in suggesting that we never need to raise the debt ceiling. “Of course we have to raise the debt ceiling at some point,” he said.
Bachmann may have been the real top target. She proved she can still stir the faithful, and she got in a couple of shots at Pawlenty for his past support of cap-and-trade, for instance. But her description of the debt-limit debate was confusing. She said the debt ceiling—which authorizes borrowing money to cover current spending obligations—should never be raised. She also said that her position—which would result in default—was vindicated by Standard & Poor’s downgrade. “When they dropped our credit rating, what they said is, we don't have an ability to repay our debt. That's what the final word was from them,” she said. “I was proved right in my position.”
Ed Goeas, Bachmann’s pollster, was less interested in explaining all that than in praising her “very heartfelt” response to the question of whether she submits to her husband, as she once said. The couple has a marriage of mutual respect, Bachmann said.
Romney dodged some issues that are bound to come back, such as how he can campaign as a jobs president given that his state was 47th in job creation when he was governor, and why he touted tax hikes in seeking and winning an upgrade from Standard & Poor’s for Massachusetts. He deflected attacks and tough questions. Mostly he just seemed bland.
That doesn’t bode well for making a big splash in the straw poll, which he won in 2007. On the other hand, it all depends on your expectations. Former representative Gresham Barrett, a Santorum spin buddy, predicted Saturday would be a good day for the Santorum camp. “I think we’re going to do fifth or better,” he said.