PELLA, Iowa – Rep. Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich differed the most today on energy subsidies and tax credits at a candidates’ forum here, with Bachmann saying she believes energy industries “need to stand on their own” and Gingrich calling it a “national security issue.”
They joined three other GOP presidential candidates to take up the issue of government subsidies and tax credits for energy, a crucial campaign issue in the state that holds the first caucuses.
At the event sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a moderator from state public television asked questions individually to Bachmann, Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, Gov. Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.
The contrast between government subsidies for ethanol vs. supporting Iowa’s corn farmers and the tightrope candidates usually walk is always a central issue in the battle to win Iowa.
“Here in Iowa, 20 percent of the electricity comes from wind,” former House speaker Gingrich said, then referring to a vote he cast in 1984 in support of ethanol subsidies, when it was called “gasahol.”
“We decided it was better for money to go to Iowa than to Iran, better for money to go to South Dakota than to Saudi Arabia. I still believe that and I’d like to see some kind of encouragement for every vehicle to have flex-fuel capabilities and every gas station to be a fuel station not just a gas station,” Gingrich said.
He also had the strongest criticism of President Obama, calling him a “president who routinely attacks American industry, that keeps us from being energy independent.
“This country has been maniacally anti-jobs. Obama is a left-wing radical who believes in class warfare and then he’s surprised that everyone he’s attacking doesn’t create jobs. What did he think was going to happen?” Gingrich asked.
Bachmann went further than she has before in expressing her objection to subsidies.
“I want to pull the regulation burden back and then I don’t think we’ll need the level of subsidies we’ve had in the past,” the Minnesota congresswoman said in response to a question on tax credits for wind energy.
“Does that include ethanol,” the moderator asked.
“That includes all energy,” Bachmann said. “I want to see a [level] federal playing field. We’ve seen what a disaster it is when the federal government picks winners and losers,” she said, referencing Solyndra, the bankrupt manufacturer of solar panels championed by the Obama administration.
“I fully believe all these [energy] industries have the capacity to stand on their own,” she said.
Perry took a similar stance, saying he believed the “federal government needs to be completely out of the energy business.”
“Whether you are in the oil and gas business and the tax credits or whether you are in ethanol business and the renewable fuel standard or whether you are in the wind side from Washington, D.C., I do not think it is the federal government’s business to be picking winners and losers, frankly, in any of our energy sources,” the Texas governor said.
There was a lighthearted moment when Santorum also said he was against tax subsidies for ethanol.
“I believe we have to get rid of all tax incentives to all energy industry. I don’t think we should create a heart attack for any industry but we should phase them out over a period of time,” Santorum said when a beeping noise began and interrupted him.
“Did I say something wrong voting against the tax credit for ethanol?” Santorum asked, garnering laughs from the audience.
Paul stuck to his libertarian leanings, calling for fewer taxes and regulation, but got the biggest response from the crowd when he again used the forum to bash his favorite target: the Federal Reserve.
When asked what he would like to hear from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke during his scheduled quarterly address Wednesday, the Texas congressman shot back “that he’s resigning,” to cheers from the crowd.
Branstad, the Republican governor of the state who has yet to endorse in the race, wasn’t shy in voicing his opinion that although he’s “not close to an endorsement,” the two candidates who didn’t make it to Pella today, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, “missed a great opportunity.”
“They missed out on the opportunity to address the number one jobs in this campaign and that’s creating jobs,” Branstad told reporters after the event. “And this forum that gave them an opportunity. It was not a situation where there was a lot of ‘gotcha’ questions, but it was really an open-ended opportunity to talk about reducing regulatory and tax burdens and revitalizing the American economy.”
When asked whether the no-shows were less likely to get endorsed after skipping the event, Branstad said he “wants to be a good host.”
“I want to encourage them to come. They haven’t missed the caucuses because that’s going to be held on Jan. 3,” Branstad said, adding that the race here is still anybody’s game.
“If you can catch fire here in the last months of the campaign, you win the Iowa caucuses that can make a real difference,” Branstad said. “I’m going to tell you this thing is a wide-open race and I think the candidates that were here did themselves some good by addressing the issues directly.”
Branstad also addressed energy subsidies and tax credits, saying they have been “wonderful” and beneficial” to the state.
“It’s created a lot of jobs, a lot of manufacturing jobs in the state as has the whole renewable energy standard that’s reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” Branstad said.
As for the sexual harassment allegations that Cain is facing, Branstad said he doesn’t think it will change his support in the Hawkeye state.
“Iowans are pretty fair-minded people and just because somebody makes an accusation, anybody that’s in a high-profile position there’s the potential to have people make this kind of accusation and I think Iowans will carefully look at the real situation and not jump to any conclusions,” Branstad said.
ABC News’ Russell Goldman, Arlette Saenz and Jason Volack contributed to this report.