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Invisible presence at GOP debate in Iowa: Rick Perry

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Then Bachmann came to her own defense, arguing that she’s been fighting the good fight in Washington against raising the national debt ceiling, cap and trade, and “Obamacare.” In fact, she used versions of the word “fight” 11 times in the course of the evening, speaking crisply and punching back hard against the common criticism that the head of the House Tea Party Caucus is good at rabble-rousing but not at passing legislation.

“She said she's got a titanium spine,” said Pawlenty. “It's not her spine we're worried about. It's her record of results."

Bachmann called herself then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s No. 1 target for defeat last year, “because I was effectively taking them on on nearly every argument they put forward.”

“I fought when others ran, I fought and I led against increasing the debt ceiling,” she said to cheers from the audience.

Bachmann and Pawlenty mud-wrestled with good reason: They both must do well at the straw poll or face diminished prospects, especially with Perry in the race. Bachmann is polling first among Iowa Republicans, so anything less than a first-place finish could damage her. The mild-mannered Pawlenty has underperformed since he entered the race, and has struggled for attention (and cash) especially since Bachmann entered. Still, Pawlenty has succeeded in keeping expectations low for Saturday, and, with a top-notch organization in Iowa, he could in fact win.

Another combative debater Thursday was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was questioned about the mass exodus of his campaign staff in June and yawning campaign debt. Mr. Gingrich took offense, accusing the media of paying too much attention to “campaign minutiae” and engaging in “gotcha questions.”

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