The candidates for the Republican presidential nomination came out swinging at each other and sometimes at the journalists asking them questions Thursday night in the Fox News debate at Iowa State University in Ames.
“I wish you’d lay off the ‘gotcha questions,’ former House Speaker Newt Gingrich snapped at Chris Wallace, host of host the Fox News Sunday talk show. Wallace, referring mass resignations of Gingrich’s Iowa and national staffs, had asked how the management of his campaign staff relates to his leadership abilities.
Then Gingrich became the inquisitor of the questioner, instructing Wallace to ask how Gingrich’s record differs from President Barack Obama’s instead of “playing Mickey Mouse games.”
That was one of the early salvos in what began as a contentious debate among eight of Republican contenders for their party’s nomination. Candidate Fred Karger, an openly gay candidate, was denied permission to participate by the debate sponsors, Fox News Network and The Washington Examiner.
The debate, aired exclusively on Fox, comes just two days before the Ames Straw Poll, which political observers see as the first test of candidates’ strength and organizational ability. In addition to Gingrich, the other participants were Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman. Bachmann is the frontrunner in Iowa based on recent polls.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Huntsman, the former of governor of Utah and until recently Obama’s ambassador to China, have virtually ignored the Iowa Caucus campaign.
There was one contender on everybody’s mind even though he was not in the debate – Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to announce his candidacy Saturday. At one point, each candidate was asked to take turns and say whether Rick Perry had “outsmarted” them by not being present.
The debaters, frequently targeted Obama as expected, but they often shifted their attention to each other, hoping to use the first Iowa debate to give them an edge in Saturday’s straw poll.
Despite his early tangle with Gingrich, a sometimes feisty Wallace did not demur, once egging on Pawlenty by reminding him that he had called Bachmann unqualified. “Is she unqualified or just beating you in the polls?” he asked.
Pawlenty said he stood by his comments.
The apparently soured relationship between Pawlenty and Bachmann is not new, according to David Schultz, professor of political science and economics at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.
“Clearly Pawlenty and Bachmann always had an ambiguous relationship,” he said. “There was a point where they both made their statements and they could have walked away. But they turned to pettiness and being small,” he said.
Turning his attention to Bachmann, Byron York drew the ire of the audience when he asked her about a quote in which she cited the Biblical verse regarding submissiveness in marriage. Would she be submissive to her husband as president. The auditorium immediately filled with boos, and Bachmann just smiled through.
“Submissiveness” means respect in a relationship, Bachmann responded, not saying how that would specifically play out in the White House.
Despite any infighting or personal grudges, there was at least one near consensus to be found among all eight candidates. All but Huntsman contended that the deal, President Obama made with House Speaker John Boehner and the rest of Congress to raise the debt ceiling should never have happened.
“Boehner should be complimented for the deal,” Huntsman said.
The deal that Obama and Congress signed prevented the government defaulting on its debt obligations, which, according to many economists, would have sparked enormous economic dislocations if it had occurred. Recently officials with the Standard & Poors credit rating agency said it downgraded the federal government credit rating partly because divisiveness among government leaders took the country close to default over that debt ceiling controversy.
Nevertheless, in answer to one question in the debate Saturday, each of the eight candidates said they would have walked away from a deal if included tax increased at a one-to-ten ratio with budget cuts.