Pawlenty, Bachmann spar in GOP debate while Mitt Romney largely spared

AMES, Iowa — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannYes, condemn Roseanne, but ignoring others is true hypocrisy Bachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate MORE (Minn.) had some heated exchanges and largely ignored the front-runner in the GOP field, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in Thursday night’s Iowa presidential debate.

Pawlenty, who needs to shatter the perception that he lacks the spine to take on President Obama in the general election, got into a back-and-forth with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who's his major competition in Iowa and sought to make up for the last debate's missed opportunity to attack Romney directly. 

While Romney is the front-runner, Bachmann is Pawlenty's biggest immediate concern. The two Minnesotans are likely the strongest candidates in Iowa at this point, and Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll could be a make-or-break for Pawlenty.

He said Bachmann’s "record of results is nonexistent,” and after Bachmann accused him of supporting tax hikes and carbon emission regulation while governor, he said that she has a record of "making false statements."

Given the chance to respond, Bachmann fired back that Pawlenty's record as governor made him sound a lot like President Obama.

Pawlenty faltered in the previous presidential debate when he shrank from a chance to repeat his attack that Romney-backed healthcare reforms in that Massachusetts that amounted to “ObamneyCare.”

He made up for that later in the debate, when given the chance by the moderators, describing Romney's positions as too close to Obama's on spending as well as healthcare.

"If we’re going to take [Obama] on we’re going to have to contrast with him on other important issues," Pawlenty said.

While their boss and Pawlenty were feuding onstage, Bachmann staffers handed reporters in Iowa a tip sheet attacking Pawlenty's record, saying that as governor he was for "bigger and more intrusive government" and raised taxes, accusing him of flip-flopping on support of a cap and trade system and government bailouts, and calling his views on health care "strikingly similar" to Obama's.

The releases showed her campaign’s game plan was to train its fire on Pawlenty.

While the two Minnesotans focused on each other, Romney focused his ire on Obama. When asked about whether he would have vetoed the debt-ceiling compromise legislation, he said, “I’m not going to eat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: Are we a nation that rips families apart? Another chance to seek the return of fiscal sanity to the halls of Congress Colombia’s new leader has a tough road ahead, and Obama holdovers aren't helping MORE's dog food.”

After the debate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said his boss would be more active in Iowa going forward. “You’re going to see him come back many more times between now and the caucuses,” he said. “He wants to win wherever his name is on the ballot, including Iowa.”

But for Saturday’s straw poll, the battle for Hawkeye State voters is between Bachmann and Pawlenty. With Thursday night's performances, they both acknowledged that.

-- This story was originally posted at 9:02 p.m. and updated at 12:45 a.m Friday.