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Debate Over, Iowa Prepares To Winnow GOP Field

Voters put corn kernels into jars with their favorite Republican presidential candidates on the first day of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Thursday.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Voters put corn kernels into jars with their favorite Republican presidential candidates on the first day of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Thursday.

They traded attacks and insults, argued about war funding and disparaged the man in the White House whose job they want.

The two-hour, eight-candidate Republican presidential debate Thursday in Iowa, coming just days before the state party's presidential straw poll and in the midst of a national financial crisis, had the potential to matter — to elevate or, perhaps, eliminate a contender or two.

But despite headline-grabbing fireworks between rival Minnesotans, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, little appeared to immediately alter the prospects of the White House hopefuls.

Except, perhaps, the prospects of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who plans to get into the GOP race this weekend and likely saw nothing during the debate that would cause him to reassess that decision.

"It still feels pretty wide open," Mike Mahaffey, former Iowa GOP chairman, said after the debate. "There were no real faux pas."

Calling All Moderates

The most interesting debate development may have come from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who made a pitch to Republican moderates, with positions that didn't get much applause from the debate audience.

Huntsman gave a firm defense of his support of civil unions for gay Americans as an equality issue and touted his endorsement of a debt ceiling deal negotiated by GOP House Speaker John Boehner.

It still feels pretty wide open. There were no real faux pas.

"The nation should never default," he said, noting that he was the "only one on the stage" who supported the debt ceiling deal.

Huntsman also said he was proud of his service as Obama's ambassador to China, characterizing it as a patriotic honor. (He sidestepped a question about the number of jobs his family business has in recent years created in China, many more than in the U.S.)

Whether his going rogue as a moderate on some issues will awaken a wing of the party that has been overshadowed by Tea Party conservatives or simply sink his already under-the-radar effort remains to be seen.

But Democratic talking points, at least, in recent days have been larded with polling data showing that the debt ceiling debate has fueled increasingly negative views of the Tea Party and congressional Republicans. Iowa caucus — and straw poll voters — could feel differently, of course.

Most To Gain, And Lose

Pawlenty's aggressive-for-him performance (he called Bachmann's legislative record "nonexistent," nicked her for making false statements and criticized the health care plan established by Mitt Romney while he was Massachusetts governor), signaled the gathering desperation of a campaign completely leveraged on a good showing — not even a win — in Saturday's straw poll.

Candidate watchers, however, even post-debate, were predicting that the end looks near for Pawlenty and for former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, whose early surge has sputtered; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Survival for Pawlenty, Mahaffey says, would require a second- or third-place finish in the straw pall and staying competitive with Bachmann.

Mahaffey, who has not endorsed a candidate (he's still hoping Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan gets in the race), is predicting that Texas Rep. Ron Paul will win the straw poll.

Front-Runner For Now

Romney, who won the poll in 2007 and is not actively competing this year, came into the debate the national front-runner, with Bachmann nipping at his heels.

Earlier in the day, he was heckled at an event at the Iowa State Fair, and Democrats pounced on his statement that "corporations are people." But many in the crowd said they liked what they saw.

"It's the best I've ever seen him," said Jim Rohden of Clive, Iowa, who had been undecided before seeing Romney mix it up with the hecklers. "I saw passion there, passion about the problems this country is facing."

Kathy and Mike Curtis of Des Moines had come to the fair specifically to see Romney for the first time.

"He comes across stronger than he does on TV," Kathy Curtis said. "He was firing back at those protesters."

Both said that Romney, who eventually lost the 2008 Iowa caucuses, would have been wasting his money trying to compete this time.

"It's who spends the most money," Mike Curtis said.

They look at Romney as someone who could defeat Obama. Bachmann, Mike Curtis said, doesn't seem ready to be president. Neither are interested in a Sarah Palin candidacy. (Palin was scheduled to make an appearance Friday at the fair.)

Perry? Like most Iowans here, they don't know much about him. But they'll soon find out more.

The Texas governor will make his Iowa debut in Waterloo in the late afternoon Sunday.

If the past is prelude, by that time the straw poll winnowing effect will have begun, and the candidates will begin the fight for delegates in the real nomination tests just five months away — starting, of course, in Iowa.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.