WASHINGTON — Michele Bachmann cast her opinion as a settled fact when she told the Republican presidential debate Thursday that a key element of President Barack Obama's health care law is unconstitutional. And Mitt Romney danced around an attempt to learn why he stayed largely mum on the epic debt limit standoff between Obama and Congress.
The first big GOP debate of the primary season brought viewers a flurry of claims and counterclaims, not all built on solid ground.
A look at some of those claims and how they compare with the facts:
BACHMANN: Spoke of "the unconstitutional individual mandate" several times, a reference to a requirement for people to carry health insurance, a central element of the 2010 federal health care law.
THE FACTS: Nothing is unconstitutional until courts declare it to be so. The constitutionality of the individual mandate has been challenged in lawsuits in a number of states, and federal judges have found in favor and against. The Supreme Court will probably have the final word. But for now, the individual mandate is ahead in the count. And the first ruling by a federal appeals court on the issue, by the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in June, upheld the individual mandate.
TIM PAWLENTY: "To correct you, I have not questioned Congresswoman Bachmann's headaches."
THE FACTS: Pawlenty was hardly dismissive when news came out about Bachmann's history of severe headaches, even if he did not go after her directly on the matter. "All of the candidates, I think, are going to have to be able to demonstrate they can do all of the job all of the time," the former governor said when first asked about the migraines suffered by the congresswoman. "There's no real time off in that job."
There was no mistaking that Pawlenty was leaving open the question of whether Bachmann's health history made her fit to serve as president. But he later tried to clarify his remark, saying he was not challenging her on that front and the flap was merely a "sideshow." Bachmann says her symptoms are controlled with prescription medication and have not gotten in the way of her campaign or impaired her service in Congress.
ROMNEY: on the last-minute deal to avert a national debt default: "I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food, all right? What he served up was not what I would have done if I'd had been president of the United States."
THE FACTS: Romney was defending himself against criticism that he took a pass when political leadership was most needed in the mighty struggle to negotiate an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. In fact, he was largely missing in the crux of the debate.
Romney consistently backed a Republican "cut, cap and balance" proposal that would have combined deep spending cuts with a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. But that proposal had no chance of becoming law and settling the crisis, and leaders in both parties knew it. It was one of several initiatives brought forward by both Republicans and Democrats for show before both sides got down to the authentic bipartisan negotiations.
During that process, Romney did not lay out a prescription that was achievable in a time of divided government. Supporting the earlier GOP bill was a far cry from stating whether he would have signed or vetoed the final debt limit legislation, because rejecting it risked an unprecedented federal default with potentially disastrous consequences for the economy.
When he faced questions at his campaign stops, he said he wasn't privy to the behind-the-scene negotiations, and his campaign aides refused to elaborate on his thinking about the proposals in serious play.
RICK SANTORUM: "The problem is that we have spending that has exploded. The government's averaged 18 percent of GDP as the percentage of the overall economy. ... And we're now at almost 25 percent. Revenues are down about 2 or 3 percent. So if you look at where the problem is, the problem is in spending, not taxes."
THE FACTS: The former Pennsylvania senator might have been mixing statistics on federal spending with federal revenue. The White House budget office has estimated that federal spending this year will equal about 25 percent of the country's $15 trillion economy — the highest proportion since World War II. But federal spending has averaged nearly 22 percent since 1970. In fact, federal spending has not been as low as 18 percent since 1966. Since the 1970s, federal revenues have averaged nearly 19 percent of the U.S. economy. This year's revenues are expected to equal just over 14 percent of the economy, the lowest level since 1950.
BACHMANN to PAWLENTY: "You said the era of small government was over. That sounds an awful lot like Barack Obama if you ask me."
THE FACTS: Pawlenty did not declare the era of small government over. (Neither has Obama.) Bachmann's jab was drawn from a Minnesota newspaper interview in which Pawlenty referred to a New York Times column on the subject, as part of his argument that "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." At the time, Pawlenty's office pushed for and received a clarification from the newspaper that he was relaying another writer's thoughts.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Alan Fram in Washington, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Philip Elliott in Ames, Iowa, contributed to this report.