It was a classic case of "anything you can do, I can do better," but, actually, it was more like "whatever your record is, mine is obviously better."
Finally shedding his nice-guy image, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, directly, and precisely, attacked fellow Republican Michele Bachmann for her lack of accomplishments.
In Iowa, Pawlenty is fervently trying to gain ground on Bachmann, a conservative and clear Tea Party favorite who leads polls in the state. With that in mind, he ripped into her Congressional record.
"It's an indisputable fact that her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent," Pawlenty said, ticking off a list of stances Bachmann had taken in Congress and lost.
Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, Pawlenty said, had fought in Congress against spending, against the healthcare overhaul and against other initiatives that passed despite her efforts.
Pawlenty: Bachmann Killing GOP With Lack of Results
"She said she's got a titanium spine. It's not her spine we're worried about, it's her record of results," Pawlenty said. "If that's your view of effective leadership results, please stop, because you're killing us."
Bachmann responded by, likewise, rattling off a chart of his failures as governor, citing his support for a state cap and trade environmental plan and for individual mandates in health care.
"You said the era of small government was over. That sounds a more like Barack Obama, if you ask me," Bacmann said. "I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress."
Pawlenty promptly fired back that Bachmann had "a record of misstating and making false statements."
Criticized for being too nice, Pawlenty was more aggressive, perhaps in an attempt to make up for the flak he received after the June debates, when he refused to assail frontrunner Mitt Romney to his face for his support of a healthcare plan as Massachusetts governor that became a precursor to President Barack Obama's overhaul.
But, Reuters reported, Pawlenty didn't always look comfortable in the attack dog role, and several commentators panned his performance as unconvincing.
"Is she unqualified or is she just beating you in the polls?" Fox News moderator Chris Wallace asked him.
Pawlenty categorically denied this as untrue and refused, after the debate, to apologize for his comments.
"If you assign yourself a label of leader, you've got be accountable for the results," he said.
Romney Virtually Untouched In Debate
Romney, who is still leading the national polls, emerged, on the whole, safe and sound for his second consecutive debate as the seven other candidates chose to focus on Obama or each other.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who is not competing in Iowa, made his first appearance on the national stage of a presidential debate and set himself apart by affirming his support for gay civil unions.
But the night's big winner might have been Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose planned announcement that he will enter the race on Saturday stole the limelight.
In between Pawlenty and Bachmann's fierce exchanges, the nationally televised presidential debate also featured heavy criticism of President Barack Obama's economic leadership.
The debate was the opening act for Saturday's Iowa straw poll, a basic test of campaign durability in the state that holds the first presidential nomination contest in 2012.