Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney shared the stage Thursday night with seven other presidential candidates in a contentious Iowa debate — which found the underdogs jabbing at each other, vying for the number two spot.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is struggling to gain traction, went after Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, accusing her of having “crazy eyes” and being "soft on gays.”
"Your husband looks like a cross between Stuart Smalley and Captain Kangaroo!” Pawlenty squealed.
Bachmann, who has risen in polls since entering the race this summer, 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 and help the poor.
"You tried to stop factories from dumping poisonous goo into our rivers, and you supported giving food to starving old people," she told Pawlenty, while the partisan Republican crowd booed and hissed. "That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me.”
But the two Minnesotans weren’t the only candidates to trade insults. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked Godfather’s Pizza founder Herman Cain, accusing Cain of hiring minorities. “You even paid your employees a few cents above minimum wage, in several instances,” said Gingrich, as the crowd gasped. “And, in 1995, after you’d made millions, you actually paid taxes.”
“Oh yeah?” Cain fired back. “How much did you spend at Tiffany’s this week, fat boy?”
“Not a dime,” snipped Gingrich. “My wife and I were on one of our yachts, on a private cruise to Greece.”
Meanwhile former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sniped at John Huntsman, accusing Huntsman – who until recently served as President Obama’s Ambassador to China – of “palling around with terrorists: the Obamas.”
“I’ve seen pictures of you sitting and eating dinner with the Chinese,” said Santorum. “Are you prepared to tell the American people tonight that you’re not a Communist?”
When Huntsman explained that he was simply fulfilling his duties as the Ambassador to China at the time, Santorum responded, “As a proud American, I am not ashamed to say that I don’t know what an Ambassador is.”
Bachmann, meanwhile, took jabs at Huntsman’s record while he was Governor of Utah. “Did you or did you not sign legislation that funded a program – paid for with taxpayer dollars -- allowing legless orphans to get discounts on wooden legs?”
But the candidates saved their most pointed barbs for the front runner, Romney. At one point, Gingrich ridiculed Romney’s background as an executive with Bain Capital. “When you were at Bain, your modus operandi was to buy out companies, then lay off thousands of workers.”
“Yes,” said Romney. “It was essential to maximize profits.”
“I have no problem with that,” smirked Gingrich. “But why didn’t you fire everyone? You could have made even more money? And you expect us to believe that you’re a real Republican?”
Moments later, Bachmann harangued Romney for being anti-gun. “When you were Governor of Taxachusetts,” Bachmann said, playing to the crowd, “did you push for legislation making it mandatory for schoolkids to bring firearms to class?”
When Romney admitted he had not, Bachmann demanded to know why, saying, “How the heck are our children supposed to defend themselves from the government, if you’re denying them their second amendment rights as citizens?”
And Texas rep. Ron Paul brought up an unfounded report, decades old, that Romney once helped a blind lady cross the road. Romney denied the charge, saying that he and the woman just happened to be crossing the street at the same time.
The debate was nearly overshadowed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who stole some of the spotlight from afar by making it known hours before the debate that he was running for the GOP nomination. Perry was unable to attend the debate, however, as he was instead co-hosting a “Pray Away the Recession” event in Houston with the American Family Association, a group of rabidly anti-gay Christian fundamentalists who believe that, among other things, Oprah is the Antichrist’s Sister-in-Law, gay marriage caused birds to fall from the sky in Arkansas, Hitler was sent by Jesus to stop Jews from selling condoms to Europe’s schoolchildren, and the Japanese earthquake happened because the Emperor slept with Godzilla.
As for his Presidential bid, Perry said, “The time is right for a gun-totin’, brush-clearin’, cowboy-boot wearin’ imbecile Governor from Texas to run the country. What could go wrong?”