AMES, Iowa — Minnesota rivals Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann sparred bitterly Thursday night during an eight-candidate Republican debate, trying to break out of the GOP presidential pack ahead of an Iowa test vote with huge consequences. Each seeks to become the main challenger to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
Their efforts were newly complicated by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who stole some of the spotlight by making it known hours before the debate that he was running for the GOP nomination.
Romney, a multimillionaire businessman who casts himself as a jobs creator, made his own stir earlier in the day when, at the Iowa State Fair, he declared that "corporations are people," drawing ridicule from Democrats.
In the two-hour debate, the squabbling by Pawlenty and Bachmann allowed Romney, the GOP front-runner making his second presidential bid, to remain above the fray and emerge unscathed by his rivals.
Though every debate participant assailed President Barack Obama, it was clear from the confrontations between Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, and Bachmann, a member of Congress, who had the most on the line ahead of Saturday's straw poll that could winnow the field.
On stage just a few minutes, Pawlenty, who is struggling to gain traction despite spending years laying the groundwork for his campaign, accused Bachmann of achieving nothing significant in Congress, lacking executive experience and having a history of fabrications.
Bachmann, who has risen in polls since entering the race this summer and has eclipsed Pawlenty, quickly responded with a list of what she called Pawlenty's liberal policies when he was Minnesota's governor, including his support for legislation to curb industrial emissions.
Much of the rest of the debate was heavily focused on the Democratic incumbent, with Romney and his seven rivals each seeking to prove he or she was the strongest Republican to take on Obama.
"I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food," Romney said when asked whether he would have vetoed the compromise legislation that Congress gave to the president that raised the debt ceiling. "What he served up is not what I would have done if I'd had been president of the United States."
Notably absent from the eight-candidate spectacle were Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who isn't a candidate but was stoking presidential speculation anew with a visit to the Iowa State Fair.
The nation's teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating giving Republicans ample opportunities to criticize Obama. The Democratic president will get his shot to counter the criticism next week during a Midwestern bus tour that will take him through this state that helped launch him on the path to the White House four years ago.
But in Iowa Thursday night, the Republicans commanded the spotlight.
Seven candidates — Pawlenty, Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain — sought to separate themselves from the pack and emerge as the alternative to Romney.
At an appearance early in the day, Romney was badgered by hecklers at the state fair. In response to chanting about corporations, he said that "corporations are people," a comment Democrats predicted would be a defining moment of his campaign.