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.
Paul managed to evoke cheers in considerable volume. It's a sign that he might, as some Examiner writers have suggested, actually draw enough true believers in his anti-war/pro-gold standard platform to Ames on Saturday to win the straw poll.
Paul's comments did provoke one strong interjection, contrary to the debate's rules, from former Sen. Rick Santorum. He insisted heatedly that a nuclear Iran would be a threat and noted that Iran has been killing Americans since 1979. And he pointed out accurately that he sponsored legislation authorizing sanctions against Iran.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also made some interesting comments, reflecting the fact that he started out in politics as a history professor. He noted that it was the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's signing of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, for which he voted as a congressman.
And he pointed out that communist spies actually did infiltrate the government in the 1940s and that it makes sense to determine that government appointees are loyal to the United States.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the candidate who has been leading most polls (though not by impressive margins), is not actually competing in the straw poll this year, though he won it four years ago. He seemed during much of the debate to be a bemused spectator, chiming in from time to time with denunciations of President Barack Obama for not knowing how the economy works and for making exactly the wrong choices on economic issues.
There was one moment of possible electricity between Romney and Pawlenty. Back in June, after he had just denounced Romney's Massachusetts health care plan, with its individual mandate, as "Obamneycare," Pawlenty pointedly declined to repeat that charge in the New Hampshire debate.
When he was asked whether he would do so this time, he promptly complied, adding that the Obamacare mandate violated the 10th Amendment.
Romney's reply was prepared and smooth, and the clash was far less harsh than that between the Minnesota non-twins.