WASHINGTON -- Sniping between Republican presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann erupted into a fully public brawl on Sunday, as the two campaigns traded barbs with an intensity that reflects the growing stakes of the upcoming Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.
Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, and Bachmann, a sitting congresswoman from the same state, both need to place well in the Ames straw poll, scheduled for Aug. 13. Expectations for Bachmann have been built up to the point where most expect her to win. Pawlenty has been trying to downplay speculation that if he finishes third or worse, his campaign could be in trouble.
But Pawlenty's manic campaign schedule in Iowa says everything about how he views the straw poll: It's a key marker for him in a state he would need to win next winter to have a hope of getting the party's nomination.
As he has campaigned with newly displayed vigor over the past few weeks, Pawlenty has increasingly drawn clear contrasts between himself and Bachmann, and his criticisms of her have grown more aggressive and less oblique. Over and over, he has belittled her as having done little of substance, making references to opponents who are "flapping their gums and offering failed amendments in Congress."
On Sunday, Bachmann's camp responded twice with long press releases, a sign for Pawlenty that his attacks are landing close to their target.
The first Bachmann fusillade came after Pawlenty's appearance on CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley." The release said it was "in response to comments made by former Governor Tim Pawlenty on a Sunday morning news program." Yet Bachmann's name barely came up during the CNN interview -- the network is saving that portion of their interview in which Pawlenty discusses her for next Sunday. The only thing that Pawlenty said that was even remotely a reference to Bachmann was this: "We need real leaders. And that's why this emphasis on entertainment and rhetoric is not the right direction for the country."
More likely Bachmann's campaign was provoked by an email Pawlenty campaign manager Nick Ayers sent Sunday to supporters, which said that "the Governor's record and message will stand the test a brutal campaign."
"Other candidates' records (or lack thereof), and plans for the future (or lack thereof) won't," Ayers wrote.
The Bachmann response was 521 words long and took aim directly at Pawlenty's claim that his executive experience as a governor gave him an edge over Bachmann.
"Being right on the issues is critical -- it is what the American people demand. Executive experience is not an asset if it simply means bigger and more intrusive government," Bachmann said.
"Governor Pawlenty said in 2006, 'The era of small government is over ... the government has to be more proactive and more aggressive,'" Bachmann said. "That's the same philosophy that, under President Obama, has brought us record deficits, massive unemployment, and an unconstitutional health care plan."
She then ran through a series of issues on which she said Pawlenty has failed to represent conservatives: a government mandate for individuals to have health insurance, cap and trade, and the 2008 government bailout of Wall Street banks.
Pawlenty made comments in years past that were sympathetic, if not actually supportive, of an individual mandate, but never advanced anything resembling one as governor. He did support cap and trade but has since backtracked and even apologized for that position. And he has been, in the past, a reluctant supporter of the TARP bailout.
Pawlenty has claimed that his comment about "the era of small government" was taken out of context.
Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant hit back a few hours later with a statement saying that Bachmann "has her facts wrong" and "there is very little difference between Governor Pawlenty and Congresswoman Bachmann on their issue positions." He said that while Pawlenty was governing Minnesota, Bachmann was "giving speeches and offering failed amendments, all while struggling mightily to hold onto the most Republican house seat in the state."
Bachmann responded yet again, through spokeswoman Alice Stewart, a little after 8 p.m. Sunday.
"Governor Pawlenty would have us believe that there is 'very little difference' between his positions and those of Michele Bachmann," Stewart said. "But in fact, there is very little difference between Governor Pawlenty's past positions and Barack Obama's positions on several critical issues facing Americans."
"On issues such as unconstitutional healthcare mandates, climate change regulations, and Wall Street bailouts, there's very little daylight, indeed, between Governor Pawlenty's record and the Obama administration's policies," Stewart said.
Bachmann will be campaigning in Iowa Monday, where voters will see if she makes the "Pawlenty is like Obama" claim a part of her stump speech. If she does, the burgeoning war of words between the two candidates will ramp up another level.