Image: Contenders
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Republican presidential candidates pose for a photo before the start of the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/12/2011 12:19:39 AM ET 2011-08-12T04:19:39

If you like clean, predictable campaign story lines, the 2012 Republican contest isn’t going to be for you.

In the aftermath of Thursday night’s debate, the state of the race remains crowded and uncertain, with the fresh threat of new players stepping on stage to rewrite the script and bump already declared candidates off their marks.

The two-hour debate on Fox News brought accord on one issue at least: All eight candidates would walk away from a deficit reduction deal that would have a ten-to-one ratio between spending cuts and tax increases. All flatly opposed any tax increases.

Vote: Who won the GOP debate?
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But the Fox News debate featured much personal and ideological warfare, especially between Rep. Michelle Bachmann and fellow Minnesotan, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, as well as between Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. All this left relatively little time for attacks on ostensible front runner Mitt Romney.

Bachmann-Pawlenty slugfest
For four minutes — an eternity in TV time — Bachmann and Pawlenty fought a rhetorical slugging match, with Bachmann likening Pawlenty to President Barack Obama and accusing him of advocating bigger government.

Pawlenty charged that Bachmann’s record of accomplishment in Congress “is nonexistent” and said “she has a record of misstating and making false statements.”

Story: Candidates hit hard in testy GOP debate

And he sourly mocked Bachmann for what he called her inability to stop Obama’s legislative agenda. “She led the effort against Obamacare, we got Obamacare ... If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you’re killing us,” he cracked.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich seemed vying for the honor of most irascible man on stage, scrapping with two Fox News questioners and snapping “Get rid of this secret phony business!” — a big applause line — as he called for abolishing the new special congressional committee on deficit reduction that House Speaker John Boehner helped create.

The night had its unexpected moments: Romney at one point offered a coherent defense of the individual health insurance mandate — as long as it is imposed by a state government — explaining clearly why it was needed to force “free riders” to pay for their medical care.

Santorum champions gay rights in Iran
Quirkiness reached kind of a high point when Santorum said, “I don’t apologize for the Iranian people being free for a long time” — under the autocratic Shah of Iran and his Savak secret police, whom he didn’t mention.

And Santorum gave, as a part of his indictment of the current Tehran regime, its oppression of gays, an unexpected argument from a man who hasn’t been a champion of gay rights in the United States.

Story: Perry to announce campaign for president

In his tussle with Santorum, Paul explained that with Iran surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, it was “natural that they might want a (nuclear) weapon.”

Appearing in his first GOP debate, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman seemed to struggle to get heard, but late in the debate did give an argument for America’s need to become a manufacturing powerhouse again.

But even as the candidates took the stage Thursday night, a new contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was poised to jump into the race on Saturday in the crucial early primary state of South Carolina, a contest which John McCain won four years ago, a pivotal step on his way to winning the GOP nomination.

Perry's entry welcome to some GOP insiders
Perry’s move was one that party insiders had been expecting, and in some cases hoping for, since spring. Meanwhile GOP 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin revealed that she would visit the Iowa State Fair on Friday, the eve of the presidential straw poll in Ames.

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

The Ames event — while a chance for contenders to display their organizational muscle — has not proven to be a good predictor of who eventually will win the Republican nomination: only once in the past four contested GOP cycles has the Ames winner become the nominee.

Yet despite that, a lackluster showing at Ames on Saturday by Bachmann, Pawlenty or Santorum, would take the wind out of their campaigns.

Conversely, a big win in Ames Saturday might be just a sideshow to decisive events playing out hundreds of miles away in South Carolina and New Hampshire where Perry will make his 2012 campaign debut.

The traditional rule about the field being set by early summer of the year preceding the Iowa caucus does not apply this year. And given Obama’s 51 percent job disapproval rating, 2012 may be a more auspicious year for a Republican to run than it seemed a few months ago.

In this jostling race, not only is the field of contenders not yet set, but strategic questions remain unknown: Will all the GOP contenders — whether that number turns out be eight, nine or ten — compete in all the primaries and caucuses, will a few of them bypass Iowa or New Hampshire, or will they do a feint and then try to creep up and win one or both of those states?

Romney tangles with hecklers
For Romney, a more valuable moment than the debate may have come several hours earlier when he skirmished with hecklers at an event sponsored by the Des Moines Register.

One irate man shouted at Romney “What are you going to do to strengthen Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” adding in an adamant finale “— without cutting benefits!”

In his reply Romney said, “If you don’t like my answer, you can vote for someone else.” Then he said, “I’m not going to raise taxes, that’s my answer.”

The initial few seconds of Romney’s reaction gave an insight into him. While it didn’t quite rank with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 New Hampshire moment, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” as a revealing “grace under pressure” vignette, it did give Romney a chance to show he was quick with an answer.

Story: Romney in shouting match with crowd at Iowa fair

And given the shouting and chanting from hostile crowd members, Romney seemed fairly incombustible, a valuable quality for a candidate.

In another apparently unscripted moment from the Des Moines scuffle, Romney told one of his adversaries in the crowd, “Corporations are people, my friend…. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”

And he was specific as to reforms he’s open to when it comes to curbing the growth of entitlement spending: Higher income people might receive less rapid growth in their retirement benefits and the age at which people become eligible for retirement benefits might be raised. The latter idea was proposed by the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission appointed by Obama last year.

Of course, Democrats were quick to make hay of Romney’s “corporations are people” line.

At a time when more than two-thirds of Americans think major corporations have “too much power,” according to an April Gallup survey, does Romney, a Harvard MBA and a former Bain Capital executive who prospered in the world of corporate restructurings and initial public offerings, appeal to the unemployed ex-middle manager in North Carolina or the jobless construction worker in Michigan? And if he doesn’t, which Republican does?

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Video: In Iowa, political showdown

  1. Transcript of: In Iowa, political showdown

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: political editor and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd is in Des Moines , Iowa , tonight. Chuck , where does the GOP stand now going into this crucial but again very early weekend?

    CHUCK TODD reporting: Well, look, if it wasn't clear before last night, it is crystal clear today. Thanks to the entrance of Rick Perry , Mitt Romney 's front-runner status, the two Minnesota Republicans, Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty , believe that tomorrow's straw poll is the last chance for one of them to stay relevant in this presidential race.

    Former Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican Presidential Candidate): ...lost by 10 points.

    TODD: The mad dash to the Republican straw poll in Ames tomorrow brought many of the contenders to the Iowa State Fair today.

    Sen. SANTORUM: It's hard to get things done to move this country in the right direction. I've done it.

    Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate): Here's something they don't know about Herman Cain . I have been going against the odds all my life.

    Representative RON PAUL (Republican Presidential Candidate): We have to endorse a very basic principle and it's called freedom.

    TODD: But today's buzz wasn't about anything said on the state fair soapbox, it was the repeated tense exchanges last night between Minnesota Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann .

    Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: You implemented cap and trade in our state, and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandate, and you called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance that government would mandate. That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama , if you ask me.

    Former Governor TIM PAWLENTY: She led the effort against Obamacare , we got Obamacare . She led the effort against TARP , we got TARP . If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you're killing us.

    TODD: Tomorrow's straw poll could settle this battle of the Minnesota twins . A first place showing could establish either as a top challenger to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry , neither of whom are attending the Ames event. Romney's already back in New Hampshire and Texas Governor Perry announces his candidacy tomorrow in South Carolina .

    Offscreen Voice: Are you a potential candidate?

    Former Governor SARAH PALIN: Still a potential. Still thinking about it.

    TODD: And Sarah Palin couldn't stay away. She stormed into the state fair today, reminding Iowans she still might run. But she also had nice things to say about Rick Perry , whom she campaigned for extensively in 2010 .

    Gov. PALIN: There is still plenty of room in that field for common sense conservatives who have executive experience.

    TODD: Now a lot of Republicans out here, Brian , are nervous that Sarah Palin is somehow going to pull a surprise and not run, but pull a surprise and endorse Rick Perry . They're actually pretty close personally. We'll see on that front. By the way, keep an eye on Ron Paul . He could end up spoiling this whole thing with the Minnesota folks and end up winning the straw poll . And then we start all over watching Perry v. Romney .

    WILLIAMS: Boy, are politics in the air this summer of 2011 . Chuck Todd at the state fair tonight. Chuck , thanks.

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