Did ‘tough guy’ tactics against Bachmann hurt Pawlenty more than they helped him?

Heated exchanges between Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty dominated the debate's first hour.
REUTERS/Charlie Neibergall
Heated exchanges between Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty dominated the debate’s first hour.

AMES, Iowa — Tim Pawlenty didn’t back off Thursday night, and he didn’t pull punches. Instead, he blasted fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann and took some swings at Mitt Romney.

But did Tim Pawlenty, tough guy, end up doing even more damage to his already faltering campaign for the presidency in last night’s Republican Party debate?

National pundits seem to think so.

Mark Shields, a public television commentator and nationally syndicated columnist, was among those who thought Pawlenty hurt himself more than Bachmann.

“When you have a multiple candidate debate,” said Shields, “and candidate A goes after candidate B, then, usually candidate C is helped. But who was candidate C?”

Early on, Minnesotans stole the show
For the first portion of the two-hour debate aired by Fox News, Pawlenty and Bachmann stole the show from Romney, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul.

But at times, the two sounded more like the Bickersons than presidential candidates.

It wasn’t all their fault. They were goaded by Fox’s Chris Wallace, just 11 minutes into the debate.

Wallace noted that Pawlenty has said that Bachmann has no record of accomplishment in Congress and gave a vague comment about whether Bachmann’s migraines should be an issue in the campaign.

Pawlenty denied that he’d hinted Bachmann’s headaches should be an issue but he jumped on her record in Congress.

“She’s done wonderful things in her life,” but she’s accomplished nothing in Congress, Pawlenty said.

He then went on to list his accomplishments as a governor.

Bachmann blasted back.

“Governor, when you were governor, you implemented cap and trade, you said the era of small government was over,” she said. She added that he also had supported mandatory health care programs.

Those were just the jabs. Then she got tough.

“That sounds more like Barack Obama if you ask me,” she said. “I have a record of fighting Barack Obama in Congress.”

Among other things, she proudly pointed to the “light bulb freedom of choice act” she had introduced.

Pawlenty wasn’t going to let this pass.

“She has a record of misstatements and false statements and she’s done it again,” Pawlenty said. “She says she has a titanium spine. But it’s results we need.”

Half laughing, half snarling, he added that whatever Bachmann is doing in Congress is backfiring.

“Please stop — you’re killing us,” he said.

Bachmann, of course, had to counter.

“I was the tip of the spear fighting Obamacare.” She rattled off more issues, saying, “I fought when others ran.”

Debate messages mostly aimed at straw poll participants
The debate was televised nationally, but most of the candidates were aiming their messages at a very small audience, the estimated 10,000 people participating in Saturday’s straw poll. (Huntsman was the one debater who seemed to be aiming his message to a national audience. Good thing, too, because he came across as a moderate in this crowd, and it’s not moderates who will be showing up for the straw poll.)

But the Bachmann-Pawlenty insults seemed to be aimed at the smallest of audiences — each other.

For the other candidates, for people in the audience, the exchanges seemed almost uncomfortable.

That dispute was only the first of two spats between the two. There was another long, personal dispute over Bachmann’s support of Pawlenty’s cigarette fee/tax increase when he was governor and she was a state senator.

Pawlenty now says the cigarette fee was a mistake but that he was one of just four governors who received an “A” grade from the Cato Institute for his great management of the state. (He also said that “my last budget ended June 30 of this year and it ended with a surplus.” This is one of those things that is technically correct but overlooks the estimated $5 billion deficit for the biennium ahead.)

Bachmann said she supported the cigarette tax fee only because it was tied to pro-life provisions she wanted enacted.

Pawlenty called her “illogical.”

Bachmann responded, “The governor put us in a box, and I chose to preserve life.”

As this spat was unfolding, Santorum was almost jumping up and down. “I haven’t had a chance to say a whole lot,” he said.

There was truth to that.

So, were the Pawlenty-Bachmann exchanges self-inflicted damage to both?

Pawlenty approach planned
After the debate, Pawlenty’s spinners indicated that the confrontational approach was planned.

“You saw a little of the hockey player in him,” said Matt Whitaker.

Another T-Paw spinner, Nick Ayers, was more direct.

“Look, after what happened before, he had to do this,” said Ayers. “If he wouldn’t have, it would have looked like he was backing down again.”

Ayers was referring to the mumbling Pawlenty had done in a New Hampshire debate when standing next to Romney. Pawlenty — who had been highly critical of Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan in television appearances — refused to criticize Romney face to face.

The political consensus after that encounter: He’d come across as weak.

It should be noted, he did take a couple of shots at Romney in last night’s debate.

The first came when Pawlenty was attacking Obama for not having an economic plan.

“If you can find his plan,” he told the audience, “I’ll come to your house and cook your dinner, or if you’d rather, I’ll mow your lawn. In Mitt’s case, I’ll just mow an acre.”

This was an apparent slap at Romney’s wealth.

One of the moderators asked Romney if he wanted to respond.

“Fine, just fine,” said Romney, waving off Pawlenty’s barb.

Later, Pawlenty took more substantive shots at Romney’s record as governor. But those attacks drew no response from Romney — or the audience.

Again, remember, this debate likely will be little remembered, but Saturday’s straw poll may have a longer shelf life.

So who was most impressive?

Based on applause lines, Ron Paul had the most enthusiastic supporters in the crowd. But Bachmann and Santorum also were drawing some fairly passionate responses.

The candidates mostly were attempting to downplay straw poll expectations.

Bachmann has been the leader in public polls.

But her spinners were talking about how “we’re the new kids on the block. We’ve only been in the game five weeks.”

Pawlenty’s spinners were trying to say that a low showing in the straw poll would not be fatal to his chances of winning the nomination a year from now.

“Remember,” said Ayars, “John McCain’s campaign was declared dead in 2007. Staff imploded, poll numbers were low.”

But, of course, he ended up as the nominee.

If starting low is good, then maybe Pawlenty’s in great shape. But it’s hard to imagine that this debate will be the start of any miracle turnaround.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

We’ve corrected the text of Michele Bachmann’s quote about Tim Pawlenty’s stand on cap and trade to conform to the official FoxNews transcript.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Lora Jones on 08/12/2011 - 09:59 am.

    I agree that it’s hard to imagine that T-Paw’s performance will help in either the straw polls or the caucuses. He has always been at his least attractive when attacking someone — he inevitably comes across as snarky, whiny and defensive — a little man trying to bull through with borrowed bravado.

    But of course, he wouldn’t know that, at least according to his Lt. Gov., because no one around him will tell him so, or stay around him very long if they do.

  2. Submitted by David Stovall on 08/12/2011 - 10:07 am.

    Bachmann stayed resolute on her convictions and pointed out Pawlenty’s conviction flaws. Pawlenty got defensive and was a bit too cute with his pre-planned comments. When you think about it, the, “Please stop – because you’re killing us” was in retort to her standing up to Republican principles. What is the corollary to that? The net result in the Bachmann-Pawlenty exchange is she skewered him with a stick and deep-fried him. Pawlenty’s done.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/12/2011 - 11:12 am.

    Any event where Rep. Ron Paul can finish in the top three probably doesn’t measure anything that needs to be measured in a presidential race.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/12/2011 - 11:19 am.

    Pawlenty’s toast for going after Bachmann like that. Conservatives were not pleased.

    Newt kicked butt. Too bad he’ll never get the chance to debate Barry.

  5. Submitted by Alan Laursen on 08/12/2011 - 11:32 am.

    It is a bit pathetic when one’s qualifications to be presidential material are that they are generally oppositional and that they support the right to choose one’s own light bulbs.

  6. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/12/2011 - 11:37 am.

    Pawlenty threw a Sarah Palin Move toss it into the endzone and hope against hope your team catches it. What’s his next career move working for an astroturf company like Norm caleman that has one big sugar daddy?

  7. Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/12/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    I love Lora’s (#1) line:

    “a little man trying to bull through with borrowed bravado”

    Magnificent phrasing, and it sums up Pawlenty perfectly. We’ve known it in Minnesota for a long time; now a larger audience is figuring it out too.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/12/2011 - 02:05 pm.

    I was pleased to see both fall on their faces last night. Pawlenty lost points when he went lawyer on Bachmann, trying to make a relatively complicated argument based on her readily apparent mistake. Bachmann, on the other hand, failed to make a case for effective leadsership in response to Pawlenty’s attack on her credentials, no doubt because she has no real accomplishments to which she can point.

    Frankly, this field of 8 is pretty pathetic. Gingrich made the most sense of them all when, in his closing remarks, he reminded people that the problems that need to be addressed exist now and that we can’t wait 15 months to begin. Agree with what he wants done or not, he’s absolutely right on the timing.

    Last thought: I want to congratulate the host who invited the candidates to take a no taxes pledge, regardless of the ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases. Idiot.

  9. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 08/12/2011 - 02:17 pm.

    Both of these candidates/carnival barkers make me proud to be a Minnesotan…Oh, wait. Shelley’s from Iowa. One can only hope she stays there after Slick Rick cooks her grits.

  10. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/12/2011 - 02:56 pm.

    Way to go Bachmann and Pawlenty! You were both right when it comes to explaining each others dismal records. Nice job of taking each other out of the race. Discarding Reagan’s 11th commandment about not speaking ill of another republican was the right thing to do. The commandment is the reason we are in the mess we are in. Remember the voiceless republicans stood by while Bush spent our country off a fiscal cliff. All because they couldn’t tell him how wrong his fiscal policies were. Voiceless is how the republicans should be now as well. The republican talking point have not changed which leads us right back to the same results of failure and default. Now they have at least two prophets leading them off another fiscal default cliff, Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh. Political cowardice is not a quality the voters are looking for.

  11. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 08/12/2011 - 04:06 pm.

    Being a progressive, I didn’t watch the debate last night, so I’m not sure who carried it or who officiated. But Chris Wallace “for Fox”? His program is on MSNBC; did they loan him out last night?

  12. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 08/12/2011 - 05:41 pm.

    National pundits are idiots. They were pumping and pimping him from the get go. He was the national pundit wunderkind.

    They need a reason for it to be his fault, so that they aren’t wrong. How could his “tough guy” approach hurt him? What’s he gonna do, drop from 1% to none%? Big deal.

  13. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 08/12/2011 - 05:43 pm.

    Yes, Dennis, Newt sure trounced them. Wow. Thrice married, cheat on your wife while she is getting cancer treatments. Total class act.

  14. Submitted by John Rashad on 08/12/2011 - 06:03 pm.

    Ron Paul won the debate, but Romney didn’t take any steps backwards. If I was to take a guess, I would say that the Ames Poll will have Ron Paul #1, Bachmann #2, Herman Cain #3, Gingrich #4, Pawlenty #5, Santorum #6, and Huntsman last.
    However, I think Romney, Perry, or Paul will win the GOP nomination. Don’t be surprised if Pawlenty drops out before the CNN debate on 9/7/2011. Tpaw will angle for the VP nod, but it’ll likely go to Haley or Rubio. He just doesn’t have the right personality to compete with Bachmann, Paul, or the other candidates.

  15. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 08/12/2011 - 07:24 pm.

    #11, you might be thinking of Chris Matthews of MSNBC…Chris Wallace is a Fox personality…

  16. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/13/2011 - 11:39 am.

    Yeah, Alec. If Newt was a democrat like Clinton he’d be considered a respected senior statesman in the party and not essentially persona non grata.

    Even though Clinton was disbarred, impeached, accused of rape and found guilty of sexual harrassment of a young government employee, he’s still the godfather of the democrat party even though everything he gets credit for accomplishing resulted from signing Newt Gingrich’s legislation. A total class act.

Leave a Reply