ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe (@matthewbjaffe) reports:
AMES, Iowa – It was almost bound to happen. Many pundits regard them as the top two contenders at Saturday’s straw poll in Ames. They both hail from Minnesota. One is a frontrunner in Iowa who has come under fire in recent weeks. The other is an underdog here who has been sunk towards the bottom of some national polls.
Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty might be “Midwestern nice,” but they were always going to square off in Thursday’s debate. With so much at stake for both of them in the upcoming straw poll, they didn’t waste any time, going toe to toe only 18 minutes into the Fox News event, with the first shots fired by Pawlenty.
“It's an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” the former Minnesota governor said. “That's not going to be good enough for our candidate for president of the United States. That's not going to be good enough for the president of the United States, to serve in that capacity.”
As Bachmann did a few weeks ago when – on a Sunday afternoon, no less – she exploded in response to a similar Pawlenty attack, tonight she did not pull any punches.
“When you were governor in Minnesota, 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. Third, you said the era of small government was over. That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me,” Bachmann said, drawing applause from the crowd.
“The policies that the governor advocated for were cap-and-trade, he praised and wanted to require Minnesotans to purchase the unconstitutional individual mandate in health care, and he said the era of small government is over,” she added. “I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress. I'm very proud of that record.”
Over to you, Mr. Pawlenty…
“I'm really surprised that Congresswoman Bachmann would say those things,” he replied. “That's not the kinds of things she said when I was governor of the state of Minnesota. And moreover, she's got a record of misstating and making false statements, and that's another example of that list. She says that she's fighting for these things. She fought for less government spending, we got a lot more; she led the effort against 'Obamacare,' we got 'Obamacare;' she led the effort against TARP, we got TARP. She said she's got a titanium spine. It's not her spine we're worried about. It's her record of results.
“If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you're killing us,” he added.
“I was at the tip of the spear fighting against the implementation of 'Obamacare' in the United States Congress. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama ran Congress, but I gave them a run for their money,” Bachmann said. “Again, on cap and trade, I was there from the very beginning, giving Speaker Pelosi a run for her money. That's why I was Speaker Pelosi’s – her number-one target to defeat last year, because I was effectively taking them on on nearly every argument they put forward. I fought when others ran, I fought and I led against increasing the debt ceiling.”
The feud with Pawlenty had clearly been anticipated by Bachmann’s campaign. No sooner had the two concluded their exchange than Bachmann’s spokeswoman Alice Stewart entered the press filing center to pass out two pages of opposition research entitled, “The Big Government of Tim Pawlenty.” The feud also threatened to make the other Republican candidates onstage virtually forgotten figures, with Rick Santorum at one point reminding the Fox News’ hosts that he was there, too.
But the Minnesota rivals weren’t finished yet. Minutes later they were back at it again, arguing over a cigarette tax increase. Halfway through the debate, it was clear that the night would not be about GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney or any of the other candidates: it would be all about Bachmann vs. Pawlenty. Even though rivals like Ron Paul will have something to say, Saturday’s straw poll is threatening to be all about the two Minnesotans, too.