But the candidate who stole the show at Thursday’s Iowa debate is the same one who won the last debate: Michele Bachmann. And she did it by slamming the man standing next to her, Tim Pawlenty.
So much for Minnesota Nice.
Pawlenty, the state’s former governor, didn’t whiff when asked about his past criticism of the congresswoman—avoiding the blunder of the last debate, when he backed off his attack on Romneycare. But he looked straight ahead when he said that Bachmann’s “record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent.”
Bachmann, by contrast, turned and looked right at Pawlenty as she rattled off his alleged heresies in office—supporting cap and trade and a health-care mandate—and likened him to Barack Obama. Pawlenty countered that Bachmann has a history of “making false statements,” but she clearly won the exchange—in theatrical terms if not on substance. Bachmann is just more comfortable behind a lectern, while Pawlenty’s subsequent criticism of Romneycare fell flat. Sure, he told a good joke about cooking dinner for anyone who could find Obama’s economic plan, but this wasn’t Iron Chef.
Bachmann even caught a break when the Washington Examiner’s Byron York asked her about a past statement in church that women should be submissive to their husbands. The crowd heartily booed him. Bachmann smoothly responded that she loves her husband and that they respect each other—which is hardly the definition of submissive.
Coming on the eve of Saturday’s straw poll, the debate should help Bachmann, who has a visceral appeal to religious conservatives; Pawlenty by contrast looked hapless.
Newt Gingrich, who some may have forgotten is still running, seemed to regard every other query at the debate—such as why so many aides quit his campaign—as a gotcha question. He seemed to think the questioners were from MSNBC. The Fox anchors were consistently tough.
Huntsman never really broke out, constantly referring to his record as Utah governor—a record with which most Americans are unfamiliar. His one passionate moment was when he defended his support for civil unions—not necessarily the best issue with the GOP primary electorate.
Romney, who remains the nominal frontrunner—at least until Rick Perry gets into the race on Saturday—made no significant mistakes. He spent part of the time on the defensive, such as when Chris Wallace asked him about laying off workers when he ran Bain Capital (recycling Ted Kennedy’s attack from the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race). Romney said he had learned how to create jobs, but did not dispute Wallace’s figures.
He admitted to “some similarities” between his health plan and Obamacare but made a legalistic 10th Amendment argument against the president’s law. He ducked a question on whether he would have signed the debt compromise that kept the country out of default, saying “I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food.” It was a good line but did nothing to dispel the notion that Romney remained on the sidelines during that crucial debate.
Bachmann’s performance wasn’t flawless. She repeatedly doubled down on her opposition to raising the debt ceiling, ignoring the fact that Congress had to pay for debts it had already run up. She never did point out any concrete achievements on Capitol Hill, declaring instead that she is a “fighter.”
But that was all she needed. In debates, especially with eight candidates sharing a stage, the goal is not to offer the most detailed plan—Romney ticked off seven points in one of his answers—but to create an image of strength and leadership. Bachmann won the sound-bite war, and that, at this stage, is what counts.