AMES, IOWA - Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann were anything but Minnesota Nice in Thursday's night presidential debate.

The former governor and current congresswoman staked their claims to the GOP presidential nomination in a series of tart exchanges as they stood side by side during the televised debate in Iowa.

Bachmann hit first, listing Pawlenty's record on issues such as health care: "That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me."

Pawlenty smacked right back: "She's got a record of misstating and making false statements, and that's another example."

In the Fox News debate two days before the do-or-die Iowa's straw poll Saturday, Bachmann set out to show she is more than just flash, and Pawlenty tried to show his political obit should not be written yet.

The unkind exchange between the two highlighted much of the two-hour debate, leading a University of Virginia professor to say on Twitter: "Bachmann and Pawlenty are turning into a couple on TV's 'Divorce Court.'"

The Minnesotans shared the stage with Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will announce Saturday that he, too, is running for president, did not participate.

Pawlenty shut out early

The questions began with Bachmann, before moving on to Romney and Paul, perhaps a sign of who is leading in the race in Iowa. Pawlenty, who has minuscule results in polling and recently has seen some funders backing away, didn't speak at all in the debate's crucial first 10 minutes; even Cain and Huntsman were questioned before the former Minnesota governor.

But Pawlenty got his chance. Chris Wallace, a moderator, asked the former governor to address his criticism of Bachmann head on.

"Is she unqualified, or is she just beating you in the polls?" said Wallace, who had once asked Bachmann whether she was a "flake."

Pawlenty was ready with an answer.

"She has done wonderful things in her life, absolutely wonderful things, but it's an indisputable fact that, in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is non-existent," he said.

Bachmann's rebuttal was equally withering.

"When you were governor in Minnesota, you implemented cap and trade in our state,'' she said. "And you praised the unconstitutional individual mandate and called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health care. Third, you said the era of small government was over."

"That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me," Bachmann concluded, to cheers.

"I'm surprised she would say those things," Pawlenty responded. "They aren't the kinds of things she said when I was governor of the state of Minnesota. Moreover, she's got a record of misstating and making false statements, and that's another example."

Pawlenty warmed to the attack.

"She fought for less government spending, we got a lot more. She led the effort against ObamaCare, we got ObamaCare. She led the effort against TARP, we got TARP. 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.

To Bachmann he said, "If that's your view of effective leadership and results, please stop, because you're killing us."

The audience gasped.

Pawlenty and Bachmann were ready for confrontation; their campaigns distributed instant fact sheets about the other.

Pawlenty also was given a chance to redeem himself for his failure to go after Romney in a New Hampshire debate earlier this summer.

"I don't want to miss that chance again, Chris. Look, ObamaCare was patterned after Mitt's plan in Massachusetts," Pawlenty said, adding that it was not credible to claim otherwise. "That's why I call it ObamneyCare, and I think that's a fair label and I'm happy to call it that again tonight."

Make an impact

The debate was high risk and potentially high reward for both Minnesotans.

"I want to see how they how they handle the pressure," said Judd Saul, a Cedar Falls Tea Party activist who has not chosen a favorite. "People love Tim Pawlenty [but] the word on the street is that he does not have the fire that Bachmann has."

Perhaps in response to that image, Pawlenty has stepped up the attacks on Bachmann.

"I liked him -- until he started ditching on her," Theresa Lursen said of Pawlenty's criticism of Bachmann, at an rural Iowa picnic early in the week. "Then I backed away." She now supports Bachmann.

Bachmann's challenge Thursday was to prove that she deserves to be regarded as a front-runner as the Saturday straw poll draws near. She also had to fend off a personal question. She once said that she studied tax law out of deference to her husband, to whom she is "submissive." She was asked if, as president, she would submit to her husband's opinion.

"What submission means, if that's your question, is respect," she said.

Pawlenty, in recent days, has increasingly lowered expectations for his early Iowa showing. His only goal for the straw poll, he has said, is to move toward the front of the pack.

In an effort to prove himself, Pawlenty was equally tough on his Republican opponents and President Obama.

He said he would reward anyone who could find an Obama plan on "some of the most pressing financial issues of our country. ... I'll offer a prize tonight to anybody in this auditorium or anyone watching on television, if you can find Barack Obama's specific plan on any of those items, I will come to your house and cook you dinner."