Republican presidential candidates tore into each other during Thursday night's Fox News-hosted debate in Iowa — the last high-profile campaign event before Saturday's crucial Ames straw poll (which is a precursor to the first-in-the-nation caucuses Iowa holds in early 2012). The two favorites to win the straw poll — fellow Minnesotans Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty — squared off in the debate's most "fiery" exchanges, with Pawlenty saying Bachmann's record of accomplishment in Congress is "nonexistent." For her part, Bachmann charged that Pawlenty's support of mandated health insurance sounds "more like Barack Obama" than a Republican. Here, a roundup of how observers scored the debate:  


Mitt Romney
Nobody "did much to draw blood from national frontrunner Mitt Romney," says Alexander Burns at Politico. Facing potentially difficult questions on his absence from the recent debt-ceiling debate and his record on taxes, the former Massachusetts governor successfully avoided damaging answers, and "stuck to narrow talking points." Romney's rivals needed to take him down a peg, but he "sauntered unscathed through his second consecutive debate."

Rick Perry
The Texas governor won't declare his candidacy until Saturday, so he wasn't onstage Thursday night. But the "lackluster showing" of the eight actual participants made it all the more likely that Perry will launch his campaign as a frontrunner for the party's nomination, says Ewen MacAskill in Britain's Guardian. The GOP field is often described as weak, and the lame answers the candidates had for the moderators' "tough questions" showed why, says Stephen F. Hayes at The Weekly Standard. In that sense, the absent Perry "did well because he didn't do poorly."

Fox News
Rupert Murdoch's cable news network is supposedly "the mouthpiece of the GOP," says Jonah Goldberg at National Review. But Fox News debate moderators Bret Baier and Chris Wallace "subjected the GOP contenders to tougher, rougher, questions" than CNN and MSNBC ever have. "In fact, I don’t think Obama ever received this kind of grilling as a candidate or as president." Baier and Wallace "were superb in their preparation and questions," says David Zurawik at the Baltimore Sun. Future debate moderators will be measured against Baier, and "found wanting."

Michele Bachmann
The Tea Party-backed congresswoman "faced her first major test as the Iowa frontrunner" in this debate, say Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. "She came out of it with some battle scars but still retaining her frontrunner status." She fought back against Pawlenty's offensive "with the aplomb that has become characteristic of her early campaign," and that's what makes her the candidate to beat in Iowa.


Michele Bachmann
OK, so Bachmann will probably go on to win the Iowa caucuses early next year, says John Ellis at Business Insider. But Republican primary voters are searching for a conservative candidate who can beat President Obama, so "electability" is what really counts. And "she lost on 'electability'" in this debate. "She hit her talking points, but she didn't show depth. You could almost hear conservative voters saying to themselves: 'If Tim Pawlenty can tie her up in knots, imagine what Obama will do.'"

Tim Pawlenty
It's hard to call anyone a big winner, but Tim Pawlenty "was the clear loser," says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. Bachmann "stuck a knife" between his ribs by suggesting that — with his openness to compromise on, say, health care — Pawlenty is not blindly devoted to the hardline policies GOP primary voters want. Pawlenty's aggressiveness might have paid off earlier in the campaign, says Rich Lowry at National Review, but he "looks querulous in pursuing it so vigorously now." And he "still seems tinny and doesn't fill the stage."

Jon Huntsman
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman needed a strong performance to revive his struggling campaign, says Tim Mak at FrumForum. But he just "didn't have the spark he needed." The moderate does deserve some credit for standing up for gay civil unions — but that's "a politically suicidal move in Iowa."

The telling moment came when Baier asked the candidates whether they would accept a deal from President Obama with $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax hikes, says Joshua Greenman at the New York Daily News. Remember: Three out of four Americans support tax increases on the super-rich as part of a plan to reduce the deficit. And yet, not a single Republican candidate said they'd accept that incredibly favorable deal. It makes the GOP look incapable of finding someone who really wants to lead a deeply divided nation. "And these people criticize Barack Obama for failing to unite the country?"