Ames GOP Debate

With a new heavyweight Republican ready to jump in the race for the White House, eight GOP hopefuls used a Thursday night debate in Iowa to blast President Obama, as they tried to stand out for GOP voters now starting to pay more attention to this 2012 nomination fight.

Mitt Romney essentially emerged unscathed, despite a lot of anticipation that Republicans would use this debate to focus their attacks on the Republican frontrunner.  It was the second straight debate where Romney had not really been tested.

The debate got off to a hot start as the two candidates from Minnesota, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty zeroed in on each other multiple times during the early moments of the two hour GOP forum.

Pawlenty at one point said of Bachmann that it's "an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent."

Bachmann was more than ready with her own rejoinders.

"When you were governor in Minnesota, you implemented cap and trade in our state and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandate," said Bachmann, who also drew a big cheer by saying bluntly to President Obama, "You are finished in 2012."

Pawlenty did get a second chance to go after Romney on health care reform, referring to his whiff in the June debate in New Hampshire by saying, "I don't want to miss that chance again."

But the Pawlenty-Romney exchange on health care didn't have much zip, as Romney rejected comparisons between the Massachusetts plan and the Obama health reform law.

"The answer is, I think you have to repeal ObamaCare," said the GOP frontrunner.

On just about every question put to him, Romney focused most of his responses on President Obama, accusing this White House of ruining America's economic future.

"I will do everything in my power to strengthen the economy," said Romney, who basically ragged the puck successfully in Thursday night's forum.

While there was no immediate sense that this debate altered anything in the GOP nomination fight, the news outside the debate hall was more focused on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who let it be known that he is entering the Republican race.

"I endorse Governor Perry for President because he'll turn our economy around," said Rep. Michael McCaul, also from the Lone Star state.

The sophistication of the media leaks was not lost on reporters, GOP strategists and conservative activists, one of whom was "genuinely shocked" at how well the Perry team was performing in getting the Governor's message out.

It had some even partially joking that Perry was the winner of the Ames debate, though the other candidates would certainly dispute that kind of conclusion.

Several of the candidates were asked at the debate about Perry's entrance; Herman Cain said of Perry, "just one more politician," as Cain tried repeatedly to emphasize his own lack of political experience, while fellow Texan Ron Paul got a few laughs by saying he wasn't at all worried about someone like Perry, arguing the Governor represents the status quo.

Paul again showcased his differences with his fellow Republicans on foreign policy matters, calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and belittling the focus on preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, as he tangled several times with former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Cain and Santorum at times seemed to disappear from the debate, as Santorum at one point raised his hand to try to get some attention from the panel of questioners.

Newt Gingrich meanwhile scrapped several times with the panel, as the former Speaker of the House called on voters to demand that Congress return to work on the budget, arguing the special House-Senate panel on the deficit is a fraud.

While Gingrich had some one-liners that resonated on social media, Jon Huntsman may not have been so lucky, as the former U.S. Ambassador to China in the Obama Administration tried to get some traction, but still seemed a distant force in the GOP field.

As for who "won" the debate - that's always a loaded question with loaded answers, because it certainly depends on your point of view.

The next GOP debate is in Tampa on September 12. That will be interesting because it will be the first appearance of Rick Perry with the rest of the GOP candidates.  We'll get to see if he's the real deal or not.