Never before has there been a televised presidential candidates debate so short a time before the Iowa Republicans' Ames straw poll. Last night's debate, co-sponsored by The Washington Examiner and Fox News Channel, provided plenty of spirited conflict and some unscripted, or at least unanticipated, moments.
The sharpest conflict came between the two candidates from next-door Minnesota, who, they assured us, are anything but twins. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has spent more time and money in Iowa than anyone else on the stage but has been lagging behind Rep. Michele Bachmann, launched the sharpest attack of the evening.
He called her record of accomplishment and results in Congress "nonexistent." And he said she has "a record of misstating and making false statements." Later he said: "Leading and failing is not the objective. Leading and getting results is the objective."
Among the results he claimed were eight years of balanced budgets, appointment of conservative judges and passage of laws that reduced the number of abortions, to which Bachmann replied, repeatedly, that he pushed a cigarette tax increase, pushed for cap-and-trade legislation and praised an individual mandate to buy health insurance.
It's the latest iteration of the old argument between purists who vote no down the line -- as Bachmann did on every bill that would have raised the federal debt limit -- and those who make some adjustments in order to get what they consider worthwhile accomplishments.
Some Pawlenty backers believe that the enthusiasm for Bachmann eventually will wilt, just as anti-war Democrats' enthusiasm for the purist but not very experienced Howard Dean wilted in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
But they need that enthusiasm to wilt now.
There's a serious case to be made that Pawlenty is the strongest general election candidate among those competing in the straw poll Saturday. But whether his generally strong and sometimes impassioned performance is enough to get straw poll voters to focus on that is unclear.
But the Pawlenty-Bachmann fight was not the only interesting feature in the Examiner-Fox debate. The one-sixth of the time devoted to foreign policy questions was largely monopolized by Rep. Ron Paul, who repeatedly denounced American military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and ridiculed the idea that nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian mullahs would pose any threat to the United States. Anyway, it's all our fault for installing the Shah of Iran in 1953, he added.