AMES, Iowa — For the reporters watching the debate from inside the cavernous Hilton Coliseum, Thursday night was all about Michele Bachmann.
Tim Pawlenty’s pointed attacks on her drew surprised whispers. When the Minnesota congresswoman jabbed back, there were murmurs. When she disappeared from the stage following a commercial break, the debate paused as everyone wondered aloud what had happened. And then there was the question from debate moderator Byron York on whether Bachmann would be submissive to her husband if she became president.
York, of the Washington Examiner, reminded Bachmann that she had previously said she became a tax attorney because Marcus Bachmann wanted her to, and that wives should be submissive to their husbands. “Would you be submissive to your husband as president?” he asked. The question elicited a collective gasp from members of the press assembled inside the Coliseum.
Bachmann stayed silent for a beat, her face unreadable. Then: “Thank you for that question, Byron.”
Bachmann then explained how, in her 33-year marriage, submission means respect — and “I respect my husband. He respects me.”
The press inside the event and Bachmann’s team agreed: Good answer.
“They wouldn’t ask a man that,” Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart said after the debate. “But the answer was spot-on. She clearly has a different definition of submission than some people, and I think she did a great job clearing it up.”
It was the sharpest moment of a debate punctuated by aggressive attacks on a level unseen so far in the presidential race. Pawlenty, who declined an opportunity to attack Mitt Romney during the last debate, pulled no punches this time around — but he directed most of his fire at Bachmann, his key rival heading into Saturday’s straw poll.
In the debate’s aftermath, Bachmann’s staffers were mobbed by TV cameras and reporters trying to grab a quote from Bachmann’s Iowa state chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, and her spokeswoman, Stewart.
That meant that first, just a handful of reporters approached Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, who emphasized Romney’s continued focus on President Obama, instead of the GOP primary fray that joined him onstage.
The consensus: Romney’s performance wasn’t blockbuster, but it was solid — and he appeared serious and focused next to the Bachmann-Pawlenty throw-down. Adding to the sideshow atmosphere was the lurking presence of long-shot candidates who weren’t participating in the debate, like Fred Karger and Rep. Thad McCotter, who spent most of the debate waiting outside in his van.
Also making an appearance in the spin room: Sen. Rand Paul, who talked up his dad’s performance.
Jon Huntsman’s advisers spent just a few minutes milling around before disappearing.
But while hundreds of reporters came to cover tonight’s events, including more than 35 television networks from as far away as Australia and reporters from at least seven different Japanese newspapers, the candidates who dominated Thursday night’s stage aren’t the ones who will likely drive the race.
The shadow looming over Romney and the others is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is set to enter the race on Saturday while Romney holds private events in New Hampshire. Here at the debate, Romney had far more representatives than any other candidate, with his local team and fundraising advisers, and his son Tagg, all hitting the spin room floor.
Tucked into a corner was Bob Schuman, a senior strategist Americans for Rick Perry.
“Any of the candidates on that stage would make a better president than Barack Obama,” Schuman said. “But Rick Perry would be a better president than any of the people on that stage.”
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