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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.

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Then Bachmann came to her own defense, arguing that she’s been fighting the good fight in Washington against raising the national debt ceiling, cap and trade, and “Obamacare.” In fact, she used versions of the word “fight” 11 times in the course of the evening, speaking crisply and punching back hard against the common criticism that the head of the House Tea Party Caucus is good at rabble-rousing but not at passing legislation.

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“She said she's got a titanium spine,” said Pawlenty. “It's not her spine we're worried about. It's her record of results."

Bachmann called herself then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s No. 1 target for 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,” she said to cheers from the audience.

Bachmann and Pawlenty mud-wrestled with good reason: They both must do well at the straw poll or face diminished prospects, especially with Perry in the race. Bachmann is polling first among Iowa Republicans, so anything less than a first-place finish could damage her. The mild-mannered Pawlenty has underperformed since he entered the race, and has struggled for attention (and cash) especially since Bachmann entered. Still, Pawlenty has succeeded in keeping expectations low for Saturday, and, with a top-notch organization in Iowa, he could in fact win.

Another combative debater Thursday was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was questioned about the mass exodus of his campaign staff in June and yawning campaign debt. Mr. Gingrich took offense, accusing the media of paying too much attention to “campaign minutiae” and engaging in “gotcha questions.”

Gingrich then invoked two previous GOP nominees, one of whom made it to the Oval Office despite campaign turmoil.

“Like Ronald Reagan,” he said, “who had 13 senior staff resign the morning of the New Hampshire primary and whose new campaign manager laid off a hundred people because he had no money because the consultants had spent it; like John McCain, who had to go and run an inexpensive campaign because the consultants spent it, I intend to run on ideas.”

Two other candidates – former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas – engaged in hand-to-hand combat over US policy in Iran and the role of the federal government in determining who should be allowed to get married.

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