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Presidential ambitions

AMES, Iowa -- Minnesota's two presidential candidates provide Iowans with a front-row seat to a heated political wrestling match.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty are engaged in a very public presidential campaign fight as Iowa Republicans prepare to vote in a straw poll that could make or break their campaigns.

The Aug. 13 Ames event has shoved "Minnesota nice" into the background as the two scrap for votes in the poll and, more importantly, in the Feb. 6 Iowa caucuses.

"It seems like they hate each other," Dean Snakenberg of Ottumwa said before a recent southern Iowa Pawlenty appearance.

Pawlenty opened the battle last month by questioning Bachmann's White House qualifications, with just a short time in the U.S. House and Minnesota Senate as background for running the country. And he wondered if migraine headaches she has could incapacitate her if she were president.

Bachmann initially ignored Pawlenty's comments, but eventually fired back.

Her "real-world" experience is what Washington needs, Bachman said. "I am self-made. I worked my way through school. ... I am a job creator."

Bachmann called Pawlenty a career politician, a major Republican insult.

"I have fought against irresponsible spending while Gov. Pawlenty was leaving a multi-billion-dollar budget mess in Minnesota," she said.

In Ottumwa, Pawlenty laid out why he thinks he is better than the other GOP candidates, all of whom claim conservative credentials.

"You might say, 'What's the difference? They all sound pretty similar...'" he said. "No. 1, have they actually done it? It is one thing to flap your jaw, it is one thing to give a speech, like we saw with Barack Obama, and it is another thing to get it done."

Pawlenty told the Ottumwa crowd, and those in dozens of other communities in recent days, that his Minnesota record proves he has done more than talk.

"I am talking about having accomplished these things," Pawlenty said.

While Pawlenty hopes promoting his experience helps his presidential chances, comments about Bachmann have not settled well with some Iowa Republicans.

Phil Cavanaugh of Ottumwa said he wishes Pawlenty "would stop bashing Bachmann."

His wife, Constance, added: "That's just lousy."

Pawlenty told Forum Communications that he does not consider his comments about Bachmann to be mean spirited.

"You can be nice and strong and you shouldn't confuse the two," he said, using GOP icon Ronald Reagan as an example.

Pawlenty reminded his Ottumwa audience that Iowans, via their presidential caucuses, have the power to launch a successful presidential campaign, as they did with Obama.

"Before you fuel the rocket and launch it out of here, make sure it can actually reach the destination," Pawlenty pleaded.

If Pawlenty is basing much of his campaign on his electability in the 2012 general election, Bachmann mostly sticks to what brought her to the dance: basic conservative issues.

In a 57-minute Oskaloosa talk, Bachmann touched on taxes, religion, Ronald Reagan, federal spending, at-risk children, education reform, home schooling, abortion alternatives, federal mandates, "Obamacare," military, veterans, the space program, business bailouts, American energy, medical research, gay marriage and defense.

Bachmann said politicians generally lack the will to make needed changes, but promised she is not one of them.

"I have that will because I have a titanium spine right back here," she said, turning sideways to her audience and pointing to her back. "I have the spine to stand up and do it. I am a fiscal conservative. I also am a very strong peace through strength conservative."

Bachmann said her time on the House Intelligence Committee qualifies her to be commander in chief. Pawlenty said he has more international experience than any other candidate, with the possible exception of former Ambassador John Huntsman, citing numerous National Guard-related trips to Afghanistan and Iraq as governor.

A style difference in recent appearances was that the ex-governor left time for audience questions after a 20-minute talk, while Bachmann took no questions following her 57-minute presentation, but posed for photos with anyone who wanted one. Also, Pawlenty fielded all reporters' questions, while Bachmann only answered them from two local reporters.

Pawlenty and Bachmann practically are living in Iowa these days, visiting every community they can before the straw poll.

Bachmann appears to be the dominant force in the straw poll, but Pawlenty is counting on a campaign organization packed with Iowa political veterans to do well.

Bachmann and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, each with more than 20 percent support of Iowa Republicans. Pawlenty finished well back with 6 percent.

Romney is not competing in the straw poll, leaving a gap other candidates are trying to fill and leaving much of Iowa's political attention focused on Bachmann and Pawlenty.

Long-time Oskaloosa funeral director Cal Van Arkel attended the Bachmann speech in his hometown just to get a look.

"We wanted to see Michele," Van Arkel said. "We don't care who gets elected, as long as it is a Republican."

But Van Arkel may be the exception. Many Republicans care deeply about who represents their party.

"I only get 25 political calls a day," the funeral director joked.

Three days later and about 20 miles to the south in Ottumwa, Snakenberg attended the packed coffee house Pawlenty appearance.

"I like to vote for the person," Snakenberg said, like many Iowans who expect to meet candidates in small settings before settling on a candidate.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.