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Invisible presence at GOP debate in Iowa: Rick Perry

Eight candidates sparred at the GOP debate in Ames, Iowa, Thursday night. Though Texas Gov. Rick Perry wasn't one of them, his imminent entry into the presidential race changes everything.

By Staff writer / August 12, 2011

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (l.) listens to Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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Ames, Iowa

He wasn’t in the auditorium, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry loomed large over the eight candidates sparring at the GOP presidential debate Thursday night in Ames, Iowa.

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Governor Perry is expected to announce his candidacy for president Saturday, a likely game-changer in the nascent 2012 race. The Texan brings to the table long executive experience, a record of job creation, populist charisma, and fundraising ability. He could give current (but weak) frontrunner Mitt Romney the kind of challenge the former governor of Massachusetts hasn’t faced yet from the already-announced candidates.

In fact, at Thursday’s debate, Mr. Romney stayed above the fray, as he had in the last debate, preferring to go after President Obama rather than any of the Republicans in the room. For Romney, the stakes were relatively low. He is not competing in Saturday’s straw poll – taking place at Iowa State University in Ames, like the debate – and thus faces no expectations of success.

But some of the other candidates must do well Saturday or see fundraising dry up, and the prospect of having to drop out. The Ames debate represented the last, best chance for the contenders to make a splash on TV before the straw poll, and they did not disappoint.

The two Minnesotans in the race – former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann – turned their simmering cold war into a hot one, leveling charges against one another over their records. Mr. Pawlenty portrayed Congresswoman Bachmann as an ideologue with nothing to show for it; Bachmann charged back with a litany of Pawlenty policies worthy of Mr. Obama.

“She's done wonderful things in her life, absolutely wonderful things,” said Pawlenty. “But it's an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent. That's not going to be good enough for our candidate for president of the United States.”

Bachmann, invited to respond, went after Pawlenty before defending herself. She began by accusing him of backing a “cap and trade” system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a policy now seen as anathema by most Republicans – and which Pawlenty has since disavowed.

“Governor,” she said, “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.”

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