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GOP debate: Candidates go after Obama - and each other

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GOP debate: Hitting hard at each other - and Obama

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, listens to Michele Bachmann during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate. (Photo: Associated Press)

AMES, Iowa (AP) - Minnesota rivals Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann sparred bitterly Thursday night during an eight-candidate Republican debate, seeking to break out of the GOP presidential pack ahead of an Iowa test vote with huge consequences. Each seeks to become the main challenger to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.

Their efforts were newly complicated 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. That was the latest twist in the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.

Though everyone on the stage assailed President Barack Obama, it was clear from the quarreling between Pawlenty and Bachmann during the feisty two-hour debate who had the most on the line ahead of Saturday's straw poll that could well winnow the field.

On stage just a few minutes, Pawlenty, who is struggling to gain traction, went after Bachmann, accusing the congresswoman of achieving nothing significant in Congress, lacking executive experience and having a history of fabrications.

"She's got a record of misstating and making false statements," Pawlenty said.

Bachmann, who has risen in polls since entering the race this summer and has eclipsed Pawlenty, 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.

"You said the era of small government is over," she told Pawlenty. "That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me."

Other jousting broke out later in the debate between the two, prodded by questions. But otherwise the debate was heavily focused on the Democratic incumbent, with Romney and his seven rivals each seeking to prove he or she was the strongest Republican to take on Obama.

"I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food," Romney said when asked whether he would have vetoed the compromise legislation that Congress gave to the president that raised the debt ceiling. "What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States."

Notably absent from the eight-candidate spectacle were Perry, who was in Texas preparing for a weekend announcement tour to early primary states, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who isn't a candidate but was stoking presidential speculation anew with a visit to the Iowa State Fair.

The nation's teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating giving Republicans ample opportunities to criticize Obama.

The Democratic president will get his shot to counter the criticism next week during a Midwestern bus tour that will take him through this state that helped launch him on the path to the White House four years ago.

On Thursday, he, too, tried to align himself with a public fed up with economic uncertainty and Washington gridlock. "There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics," he declared in Michigan, where he was touring an advanced-battery factory

In Iowa Thursday night, the Republicans commanded the spotlight.

Seven candidates - Pawlenty, Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain - sought to separate themselves from the packed field and emerge as the chief alternative to Romney.

Pawlenty, who hesitated in a June debate to criticize the former Massachusetts governor, poked at Romney and Obama at the same time.

"Where's Barack Obama on these issues. You can't find his plans on the most pressing issues in this country," Pawlenty said, promising audience members and TV viewers he would "come to your house and cook you dinner" if they could find Obama's proposals.

"Or if you prefer I'll come to your house and mow your lawn ... In case Mitt wins, I'd limit it to one acre."

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