For sheer entertainment value, devotees of steel-cage wrestling would have loved last night’s Pawlenty-Bachmann beatdown. It’s not often that you get to see Minnesota Nice candidates behave like Stone Cold and The Rock, firing off insults in lieu of physical combat.Their verbal collision, at the Republican presidential debate in Iowa, was probably inevitable, since it appears that each can ascend in the primary pack only at the expense of the other. Each has invested considerable face time in Iowa; each is trying to lay claim to the Christian conservatives who will vote heavily in the Iowa caucuses (January) and at the over-hyped Iowa straw poll (tomorrow). With respect to the latter, neither wants a Sunday headline that highlights a failure to meet expectations in Iowa.And what a spectacle it was, in part because each had so much ammo against the other. Bachmann believes (sincerely, or perhaps only as a debate tactic) that Pawlenty repeatedly sold out the conservative cause during his gubernatorial tenure, whereas Pawlenty believes (sincerely, or perhaps because he couldn’t risk coming off, yet again, as a milquetoast) that Bachmann is just a grandstanding show horse who hasn’t accomplished squat.For the voters who will wield the verdict on these candidates, it’s really a choice between talking the talk and walking the walk. Bachmann can afford to talk big because, as a legislator in Minnesota and Washington, she never has been compelled to make the difficult decisions that bedevil governors. She has rarely been forced to rein in her passions. She is therefore free to skewer Pawlenty for his compromises. Eying him last night, she said, “When you were governor, you implemented cap and trade (a climate change law) in our state, and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandate…You said ‘the era of small government is over.’ That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me.”Ouch. In our current political climate, linking a fellow Republican to Barack Obama is akin to saying, “You’re a child molester.” Turns out, Pawlenty did indeed support cap-and-trade as governor, and has since indulged in lengthy apologias. And he did say in a newspaper interview, five years ago, that “the era of small government is over.” He also said, “there are certain circumstances where you’ve got to have government put up the guardrails or bust up entrenched interests before they become too powerful.” Heavens, what a terrible thing to believe that there are times when government should “put up the guardrails.” Most Americans would agree with that, but Bachmann’s intended audience, via Fox News last night, was comprised of conservatives who presumably do not.Bachmann’s other complaint – that Pawlenty “praised the unconstitutional individual mandate” – was not particularly substantive. First of all, the individual mandate (a feature of the federal health reform law, requiring Americans to buy coverage) has been deemed constitutional by the majority of federal courts that have ruled on it. Bachmann’s characterization is her opinion, not settled fact. Secondly, Pawlenty as governor did say that he was “open” to the mandate, as part of a Minnesota reform plan, but he never championed the concept, nor did he sign off on doing it.Unmindful of nuance, Bachmann kept it up; at risk of boring Fox viewers with the minutiae of Minnesota legislative politics, she tried to zap Pawlenty for alleged compromises on various state bills – whereupon Pawlenty, who had been widely panned for his passivity in a June debate, proceeded to slam her against the cage: “She has a record of misstatements and making false statements, and that’s an example.” Then he eyed her and said, “If that’s your view of effective leadership, please stop, you are killing us.”Fortunately for Bachmann, Pawlenty didn’t have the time to draw from her long litany of documented lies. Such as the time she declared, “Social Security is out of money. This year it is borrowing from the general treasury.” (It’s not out of money, it’s not borrowing from the general treasury, and it’s not projected to run dry until around 2037.) Or the time she declared that the U.S. Constitution only requires us to tell the Census people “how many people are in our home.” (Inaccurate.) Or the time she declared that “the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, has said that ObamaCare will kill 800,000 jobs.” (She and her fellow House Republicans made that one up. The CBO never floated that stat. It said only that the health reform law’s impact on jobs “will probably be small.”) Or the episode, last night, when she declared: “We just heard from Standard & Poor’s, when they dropped our credit rating. What they said is, we don’t have an ability to repay our debt.” (Flat wrong. S&P never said that we can’t repay our debts.) Actually, Pawlenty probably wouldn’t have cited any of those lies even if given the opportunity, because the conservative Iowans he’s trying to woo would prefer to hear the worst about “ObamaCare,” Social Security, and the Census.Pawlenty was in a tough position. If he had wimped out on Bachmann, as he did on Mitt Romney during the June debate, he would have been toast. But by attacking Bachmann – “It’s an indisputable fact that in Congress, (her) record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent” – he may have cemented conservative Iowans’ determination to vote for her. Still, he had no choice. He had to risk a backlash in order to achieve the gains that he needs to survive.But despite all the entertainment value, I suspect that their clash will not linger in the minds of many. Debate confrontations, especially in the earliest events, tend to be ephemeral. In all likelihood, the lasting image of this debate occurred at the 49-minute mark when a Fox questioner asked for a show of hands. How many of the candidates would, as president, refuse to sign a deficit-reduction package that featured a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases? In other words, how many would reject such a package simply because it contained some revenue increases?All eight candidates raised their hands.They may as well have chanted in unison, “Hey, we’re all out of step with the American mainstream and the majority of the American people. Most people believe it’s responsible to put revenue hikes into the mix, so that future spending cuts won’t be draconian – but not us!”And that says it all.——-Have a great weekend. You can follow me on Twitter.