Republican hostilities break out as candidates spar for nomination

Bachmann and Pawlenty swap attacks in Iowa debate that keeps Romney as frontrunner

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The Republican presidential hopefuls plunged with wide smiles and barbecue aprons into the melee of the Iowa State Fair here yesterday hours after squaring off in a tumultuous televised debate that at times was more undignified playground brawl than polite policy discourse.

Who was hurt the worst may become clear today, when Republican voters from all corners of the state are bused by the candidates to the college town of Ames, which also hosted the debate, for a first straw poll on which of them they favour for the party nomination. While the atmosphere will be carnival-like and the results non-binding, the poll traditionally begins the process of separating the weak from the strong.

In a sideshow that was anticipated almost as much as the debate and the poll, Sarah Palin, the No 2 on the ticket in 2008, swept into the state fairgrounds aboard her "One Nation" bus for a live interview from the grounds for Fox News last night, thus re-igniting speculation that she may yet run.

In a telling illustration of how far to the fiscal right the Republican field is hewing, every one of the candidates at the debate raised their hands when asked by a moderator if they would reject out of hand a deficit reduction deal in Congress that were to include even a minimal effort to raise tax revenues.

His frontrunner status in national polls intact, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and businessman, stood mostly aloof fending off attacks from Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, who said he was too like President Barack Obama to be a credible challenger to him. Notably, Mr Pawlenty said Mr Obama had modelled his healthcare overhaul on a plan imposed by Mr Romney in his state. Mr Pawlenty has struggled to make an impact and he used the debate to present a more forceful face to voters, unleashing almost spiteful attacks not just on the unperturbed Mr Romney but more notably against his fellow Minnesotan and the Tea Party standard bearer, Michele Bachmann. "The fact of the matter is in Congress, her record of accomplishments and results is non-existent," he said of the Congresswoman.

Strolling through the fair in jeans and cowboy boots past the camel rides, he told The Independent that his job at the debate had been "to get my message out of results mattering more than rhetoric". He had taken aggressive aim at Ms Bachmann, he added, because "you have to show what separates the candidates one from the other".

It remains to be seen whether ditching his nice-guy image will work, not least because in Iowa Ms Bachmann, with her fiercely focused balance-the-budget, pro-Constitution message, is performing well and is a possible winner of today's straw poll. "He showed some backbone in taking on Bachmann, and he could get some credit for that," said Donna Hoffman, professor of politics at Northern Iowa University.

Also favoured in the straw poll is Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman, who will spare no effort to bring supporters en masse to the straw poll today. He briefly hijacked the debate with a fiery denunciation of America's overseas wars and an assertion that Iran had a right to develop nuclear weapons. "What's so bad about this?" he asked. "We just plain don't mind our business [overseas] and that's our problem."

Not in Iowa yesterday was Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who is set to pitch himself into the nomination contest in a speech today in South Carolina. From there he was to continue on to New Hampshire before jetting to Waterloo, Iowa, tomorrow. It is a two-day introduction tour that will see him in the three states that will kick off the nomination derby next February .

Bob Schuman, director of Americans for Rick Perry, told reporters at the debate site that Mr Perry had begun thinking seriously about joining the race when three other potentially powerful candidates, Hailey Barbour, Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee – all with similar records as governors – decided to stay on the sidelines. "They are all his close friends and their decisions left an opening," he said.

The arrival of the gritty Texan threatens to scramble the campaign plans of all the candidates. The consensus among strategists for the candidates at the debate was that the conservative Mr Perry threatens to be a formidable force in the race. Mr Goeas suggested this would come down to a three-person contest. He counts Ms Bachmann among those who will hang in for the long haul, pitted against Mr Romney and Governor Perry.

How the others fared

Jon Huntsman

The dark horse in the race, he appeared to be uncomfortable. Some analysts criticised him for failing to stake out strong positions. For instance, he said he was for civil unions, but added that those against them were "not wrong".

Ron Paul

The stalwart libertarian was true to eccentric form, arguing that Iran should have the right to a nuclear weapon – not a stance likely to endear him to the GOP mainstream. But he had fervent support and could triumph in the straw poll.

Rick Santorum

Tangled fiercely with Mr Paul on Iran. But failed to make a real impression, and looks doomed to the continued low profile that has so far dogged his campaign. Complained that he had been marginalised by the anchors.

Newt Gingrich

His calamitous campaign – which has seen almost his entire staff abandon ship because of disillusionment at his approach – was not righted. When asked about his problems he criticised the question as irrelevant.

Herman Cain

The pizza mogul, and probable back marker in the race, did not distinguish himself. Tied himself in knots trying to explain his suggestion that some Americans might not be comfortable with Mitt Romney's Mormonism.