Republican presidential candidates lashed out at President Barack Obama and each other as they slugged it out for front-runner position in a televised debate to launch next year's election season.
The debate late on Thursday was the opening act for Saturday's Iowa straw poll, a traditional test of campaign strength in the state that holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2012. The uncertain state of the US economy and deep ideological divisions over how to fix it provided the event's backdrop.
The proceedings were overshadowed by Texas Governor Rick Perry's announcement that he will enter the race on Saturday, a move that could push him into the top tier of contenders with Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Recent stock market volatility and a downgrade in the US credit rating gave Republicans ample opportunities to criticise Obama. The president will get his chance to counter the criticism next week during a bus
tour that will take him through the Midwestern region.
On Thursday, Obama also 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 a factory.
Obama's Democratic faithful have worked to paint the entire Republican field as extremists with a new ad campaign highlighting positions they say "would end Medicare as we know it" and approve "more tax giveaways to millionaires, billionaires and the special interests".
Candidates get mean
In Iowa, the squabbling by Minnesota rivals Tim Pawlenty and Michelle Bachmann allowed Romney to remain above the fray and emerge relatively unscathed by his rivals. Pawlenty is desperately seeking to gain ground on Bachmann, a conservative and Tea Party favourite. He wasted little time in ripping into her record in Congress.
"It's an indisputable fact that her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent," said Pawlenty, the
former governor of Minnesota who was criticized for passing up an opportunity to criticise Romney in the last debate.
He said Bachmann, a US representative from Minnesota, had fought in Congress against spending, against the healthcare overhaul and against other initiatives that had passed despite her efforts.
"She said she's got a titanium spine. It's not her spine we're worried about, it's her record of results," he said. "If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you're killing us."
Bachmann responded by attacking Pawlenty's record as governor, including his support for a state cap-and-trade environmental plan and for individual mandates in healthcare.
"You said the era of small government is over,'' she said. "That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me."
Pawlenty shot back that Bachmann had "a record of misstating and making false statements."
The repeated clashes between the two contenders caused former Senator Rick Santorum to interrupt at one point and beg moderators of the debate to ask him a question.
'Contrasts, not similarities'
The debate's timing two days before the straw poll raised the stakes for several candidates, most notably Pawlenty, who could be fighting for his political life in the nonbinding mock election.
Pawlenty, who hesitated in a June debate to criticise the former Massachusetts governor, this time accused him of sharing views with Obama on spending and health care.
"We're going to have to show contrast, not similarities'' with the incumbent president, Pawlenty said. He sought repeatedly to tie Romney and Obama together by poking at both.
"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.''
But Romney kept his focus on Obama, saying: "Our president simply doesn't understand how to lead and how to grow the economy.''
Palin and the polls
Notably absent from the eight-candidate spectacle was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a conservative darling who has flirted with a presidential bid but will not appear on Saturday's ballot. She is, however, bringing her "One Nation" bus tour to the Iowa State Fair on Friday.
Romney, who is leading in recent polls with 20.4 per cent support in a Real Clear Politics average, has spent little time in Iowa.
Bachmann has invested a lot more here, which means her campaign could lose momentum if she does not come out on top in the straw poll. She has slipped to fourth with 10.4 per cent, while the undeclared
Palin garners 10.6 per cent.
Perry has surged into second place in recent days with support at 15.4 per cent, according to the recent polls average. Libertarian congressman Ron Paul has 8.9 per cent support in the polls, while businessman Herman Cain is polling at 5.6 per cent, former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 4.6 per cent and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman at just 2.3 per cent.