Image: GOP Presidential Candidates
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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate on August 11, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. staff and news service reports
updated 8/12/2011 9:56:39 AM ET 2011-08-12T13:56:39

Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney shared the stage Thursday night with seven other presidential candidates in a contentious Iowa debate — which found the underdogs snipping at each other, vying for the number two spot.

Their efforts were newly complicated by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who stole some of the spotlight from afar by making it known hours before the debate that he was running for the GOP nomination. That was the latest twist in the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.

Interactive: GOP 2012

Pawlenty v. Bachmann battle royale
Though everyone on the stage assailed President Barack Obama, it was clear from constant quarreling between Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who had the most on the line ahead of Saturday's straw poll.

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Vote: Who won the GOP debate?

On stage just a few minutes, Pawlenty, who is struggling to gain traction, went after Bachmann, accusing her of achieving nothing significant in Congress, lacking executive experience and having a history of fabrications.

"She's got a record of misstating and making false statements," Pawlenty said.

Bachmann, who has risen in polls since entering the race this summer and has eclipsed Pawlenty, quickly responded with a list of what she called Pawlenty's liberal policies when he was Minnesota's governor, including his support for legislation to curb industrial emissions.

"You said the era of small government is over," she told Pawlenty. "That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me."

Story: GOP race crowded, uncertain following debate

Other jousting broke out later in the debate between the two, prodded by questions. But otherwise the debate was heavily focused on the Democratic incumbent, with Romney and his seven rivals each seeking to prove he or she was the strongest Republican to take on Obama.

Economy under microscope
"I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food," Romney said when asked whether he would have vetoed the compromise legislation that Congress gave to the president that raised the debt ceiling. "What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States."

Story: Romney in shouting match with crowd at Iowa fair

Notably absent from the eight-candidate spectacle were Perry, who was in Texas preparing for a weekend announcement tour to early primary states, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who isn't a candidate but was stoking presidential speculation anew with a visit to the Iowa State Fair.

The nation's teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating giving Republicans ample opportunities to criticize Obama. The Democratic president will get his shot to counter the criticism next week during a Midwestern bus tour that will take him through this state that helped launch him on the path to the White House four years ago.

Video: GOP candidates trade shots at Iowa debate (on this page)

On Thursday, he, too, tried to align himself with a public fed up with economic uncertainty and Washington gridlock. "There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics," he declared in Michigan, where he was touring an advanced-battery factory

In Iowa Thursday night, the Republicans commanded the spotlight.

Seven candidates — Pawlenty, Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain — sought to separate themselves from the packed field and emerge as the chief alternative to Romney.

Story: Perry to announce campaign for president

Pawlenty, who hesitated in a June debate to criticize the former Massachusetts governor, poked at Romney and Obama at the same time.

"Where's Barack Obama on these issues. You can't find his plans on the most pressing issues in this country," Pawlenty said, promising audience members and TV viewers he would "come to your house and cook you dinner" if they could find Obama's proposals. "Or if you prefer I'll come to your house and mow your lawn ... In case Mitt wins, I'd limit it to one acre."

Romney, who was looking to protect his leads in national and state polls, smiled and took a pass when given a chance to respond, saying: "That's just fine."

In the hours before the debate, Romney created a stir when, at the Iowa State Fair, he declared to Iowans that "corporations are people."

But that statement — at least initially — didn't come up while on stage with his rivals, allowing him to keep his focus on Obama. He said, "Our president simply doesn't understand how to lead and how to grow the economy." He also criticized the incumbent Democrat on the downgrade of the nation's credit rating.

Story: Iowa could make, break 2012 hopefuls

Huntsman — appearing in his first presidential debate — acknowledged he had not yet presented an economic plan, but he cited his economic record as governor of Utah as evidence of what he would accomplish as president. He defended his service as ambassador to China under Obama.

Gingrich, pressed on the implosion of his campaign amid financial strife and infighting earlier this summer, chastised the Fox News panel for "gotcha questions." He said Republicans including Ronald Reagan and John McCain had staff defections during their campaigns, and he said he intended, in his words, to "run on ideas."

"You're responsible for your record," retorted moderator Chris Wallace.

Image: Rick Santorum, Herman Cain
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
"I haven't gotten to say a lot," commented candidate Rick Santorum about 45 minutes into the debate.

On gay marriage
Roughly 45 minutes into the debate, Santorum raised his hand and said: "I haven't gotten to say a lot." He joked that he often tells supporters, "You see me in your hometown, but you probably wouldn't see much of me on your television."

In a firey outburst over states' rights, Santorum said the 10th Amendment doesn't give states the right to "trample over" moral law — referencing recent nation-wide votes on gay marriage.

On the subject, Romney said, "I believe the issue of marriage should be decided on the federal level." His reasoning? "People move." He added, "Marriage is a status, not an activity that goes on between the walls of a state."

Huntsman unapologetically came out in support of civil unions for gay couples, saying "I think this nation should do a better job on the issue of equality."

Bachmann called her record of supporting traditional marriage "unblemished."

Asked to respond to earlier statements about the need for wives to be submissive to their spouses, Bachmann said, "What submissive means to us is respect." She called her husband, Marcus, "a wonderful, godly man and father."

Showing the wide diversity of opinion, Paul gave a staunchly libertarian answer to nearly every question from the economy to foreign affairs, essentially saying the United States should have friendly relations even with countries that violate human rights and not interfere in their internal affairs. "It's about time we talk to Cuba," Paul said at one point. He also said the United States had created the hostile relations between it and Iran.

Frontrunner heckled
Even before the debate began, it was a campaign day to remember.

At an appearance early in the day, Romney was badgered by hecklers at the state fair. In response to chanting about corporations, he said that "corporations are people," a comment Democrats predicted would be a defining moment of his campaign.

Romney, a wealthy businessman who has struggled with an aloof and elitist image as he tries for the GOP presidential nomination a second time, made the remark while outlining options for reducing the federal deficit and overhauling entitlement programs.

Despite tea party outrage that sometimes focuses on banks and auto companies, Romney has said to applause from GOP audiences that the rights of business are being trampled under Obama to the detriment of the struggling economy. But in Thursday's audience, the line encountered resistance.

Vote: Who won the GOP debate?

A few hours after Romney's awkward moment, Perry spokesman Mark Miner confirmed that the Texas governor would announce that he was running for president while in early primary states on Saturday.

Perry's candidacy is certain to upend the race, and he could challenge Romney for the role of jobs-focused candidate.

The conservative governor is seen as a potential bridge between the party's social and economic wings.

Though undeclared as a candidate, he has been lining up donors and establishing contacts in early voting states such as Iowa. He hosted a national day of prayer in Houston last week, a nod to the strength of evangelical conservatives, an influential force in Iowa.

Asked about Perry's candidacy during the debate, several of his opponents welcomed him to the race — and used the opportunity to criticize him. Cain called Perry "one more politician," while Paul said he was pleased Perry was joining the field because "he represents the status quo."

"We all need prayers, and I hope he offers up a bunch for everyone up on this stage," joked Huntsman.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2013

Video: GOP candidates trade shots at Iowa debate

  1. Closed captioning of: GOP candidates trade shots at Iowa debate

    >>> the election, the gloves have already come off in the republican side .

    >> that's right. candidates took ten taking shots at president obama and each other during last night's debate in iowa ahead of tomorrow's straw poll . there was obvious tension in the area when tim paul lewlenty and michele bachmann . we're going to talk exclusively to bachmann about what she said and the "newsweek" cover.

    >>> live to aruba in the latest for the search of a missing maryland woman. the fbi has started conducting interviews tied to the case. we're also going to hear from the woman's roommate here in the u.s.

    >>> take a look at our massive crowd that we have outside on our plaza. country fans are loyal, lester.

    >> yes, coming up, they will be treated to a live concert to one of the most popular country groups around. grammy winning zac brown band .

    >> what do you mean a little country party out here?

    >> starting early.

    >> warming up out there.

    >> look forward to it.

    >>> first, begin with the heated gop debate in iowa. chuck todd , nbc's political director, is in des moines for us this morning. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. the final debate without texas governor rick perry in it is going to be known as the time that -- the phrase minnesota nice got turned on its head as the two minnesota republicans, michele bachmann and tim pawlenty , campaigned against each other in a way they realized their political lives are at stake this weekend, and they went at each other.

    >> i need to respond to that.

    >> reporter: former minnesota governor tim pawlenty and congresswoman michele bachmann sparred bitterly, hoping it will translate to a win in tomorrow's critical straw poll .

    >> her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent.

    >> i introduced the life bulb freedom of choice .

    >> you said the era of small government was over. that sounds a lot more like barack obama , if you ask me.

    >> reporter: but pawlenty didn't stop at bachmann and this time decided not to pass a up a chance at mitt romney , while resurrecting a word pawlenty used. obamney care.

    >> saying they're essentially not the same plan is not credible.

    >> reporter: he instead tried to stay focused on president obama .

    >> that's because our president simply doesn't understand how to lead and how to grow on economy.

    >> reporter: all eight candidates agreed on one thing, no new taxes. went asked if they would walk away from a plan that would raise taxes but cut ten times more in spending, every hand went up. former speaker newt gingrich seemed more intent on attacking his former fox news colleague, repeatedly bristoling at what he called gotcha question.

    >> too much attention paid by the plress corp. of the campaign and not enough to to distinguish us from barack obama .

    >> reporter: the audience boo'd when bachmann was asked if as president she would be submissive to her husband as the president as god commands. reporter romney the debate of the day may have actually come earlier when he took on a handful of democratic hecklers.

    >> hold on a second. hold on a second. i'm not going to raise taxes. that's my answer. i'm not going to raise taxes. and if you want somebody that can raise taxes you can vote for barack obama .

    >> reporter: as for the president, he got fired up speaking at a factory in michigan.

    >> there's been a lot of talk of washington right now that i should call congress back early.

    >> reporter: slamming congress for bickering and what he called folks playing political games.

    >> the last thing we need is congress spending more time arguing in d.c.

    >> reporter: there was an undercard of sorts last night at the debate. pennsylvania -- former pennsylvania senator rick santorum and texas congressman ran paul went over it big time , boat wanting to do well saturday. but today is going to be all about sarah palin who shows up here today to go to the iowa state fair . lester?

    >> chuck todd this morning. thanks.