Standing at podiums next to one another, two Republican presidential candidates from Minnesota went after each other more than once about experience, records and taxes during a two-hour, eight-candidate debate Thursday night at Iowa State University.

“She’s done wonderful things in her life, but it’s an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “That’s not going to be good enough for our candidate for president of the United States.”

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who according to recent polls is the front-runner in Iowa going into Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll, shot back.

“When you were governor in Minnesota, you implemented cap and trade in our state, and you praised an unconstitutional individual mandate, and you called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance,” she told Pawlenty. “Third, you said the era of small government was over. That sounds a lot more like (President) Barack Obama if you ask me.”

That line drew applause from an enthusiastic crowd of 2,500 people in CY Stephens Auditorium at the university. But Pawlenty said that’s not what Bachmann said when he was governor.

“She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements,” Pawlenty said. “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. She says she’s got a titanium spine.

It’s not her spine we’re worried about; it’s her record of results. If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you’re killing us.”

Sparring continues

The verbal sparring between Bachmann and Pawlenty began in late July on the campaign trail, mostly through statements released to the media. It continued at the debate televised live on FOX News, just two days before the Ames Straw Poll.

Bachmann defended her record, saying she has consistently fought against Obama and his “unconstitutional” measures.

“I am very proud of that record. That is what qualifies me as a fighter and representative of the people to go to Washington, D.C., and the White House,” she said. “People are looking for a champion. They want someone who’s been fighting.”

A second round of sparring came after Pawlenty said he’s against raising taxes, but acknowledged raising the cigarette tax in 2005 when he was governor. “I did agree to the cigarette fee,” he said. “I regretted that.”

Bachmann said she was vocal against that increase in the cigarette tax.

“Gov. Pawlenty cut a deal with the special interest groups, and he put in the same bill a vote to increase the cigarette tax as well as a vote that would take away protections from the unborn,” she said. “I made a decision. I believe in the sanctity of human life. I believe you can get money wrong, but you can’t get life wrong.”

That statement was another crowd-pleaser, drawing applause and cheers from the live audience.

But Pawlenty said Bachmann didn’t vote against that bill because of anti-abortion protection, and again questioned Bachmann’s record. “She speaks of leading these efforts,” he said. “Leading and failing is not the objective.”

Romney steals spotlight

The third candidate stealing the spotlight during the debate was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who’s considered a national front-runner in the race, although he’s not actively competing in Saturday’s straw poll. This is only his second trip to Iowa this year.

Chris Wallace, of FOX News, gave Pawlenty another chance to attack Romney on health care — which Pawlenty acknowledged was a missed opportunity during the last candidate debate in New Hampshire.

“I don’t want to miss that chance again, Chris,” Pawlenty said, with Romney standing just two spots away from him. “Obamacare was patterned after Mitt’s plan in Massachusetts. For Mitt or anyone else to say there aren’t substantial similarities or they’re not essentially the same plan, it just isn’t credible. That’s why I called it ‘Obomneycare’ and I think that’s a fair label and I’m happy to call it that again tonight.”

Pawlenty said that isn’t the only similarity between Romney and Obama. He also said that while he’s appointed conservative judges, two out of three of Romney’s judicial appointments were either Democrats, liberal or support pro-abortion rights.

“I think I like Tim’s answer in the last debate better,” Romney quipped.

Romney then defended the health-care plan he signed into law in Massachusetts.

“There’s some similarities between what we did in Massachusetts and what President Obama did, but there’s some big differences,” Romney said. “We put together a plan that was right for Massachusetts. The president took the power of the people and the states away from them and put in place a one-size-fits-all plan. It’s bad law. It’s bad constitutional law. It’s bad medicine.”

Romney said on his first day as president, he’d grant a waiver for “Obamacare” to all 50 states.

Also participating in Thursday night’s debate were former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain.

But so much time and attention of the debate was focused on Bachmann, Pawlenty and Romney that 45 minutes into the debate, Santorum waved his hand to let the debate moderators know that he was there, too, and hadn’t spoken in a while. Santorum is trailing in the polls, despite being one of the most frequent visitors to Iowa and spending the last three weeks here with his wife and seven kids.

Much of the sparring between the candidates Thursday night didn’t happen by accident. Moderators of the debate, co-sponsored by the Republican Party of Iowa, FOX News and the Washington Examiner newspaper, asked several questions that encouraged such responses.

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