Republican presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov....

Republican presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. (Aug. 11, 2011) Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

With Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas topping the Republican presidential field in the Iowa straw poll on Saturday, the nation appears on course for a pivotal showdown in 2012 over the size and role of government. It's a debate we need to have.

The issue has ebbed and flowed throughout our history, and it won't be resolved by any one election. But it's now a gaping ideological divide with no-compromise warfare over taxes and spending. Slashing the two is the GOP's top priority.

It's very early in the nomination process, and winner Bachmann, and Paul, who finished a close second, are not ideological twins. But each is an unabashed champion of smaller government.

The party's more moderate candidates, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, were beaten in Iowa even by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a states' rights champion who wasn't on the ballot.

On the other side of the divide, Democrats are asking voters not to reduce the federal government's role in our lives. The Congressional Progressive Caucus wants little change to the expensive Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs. President Barack Obama and more centrist Democrats, while acknowledging a need to spend less on entitlement programs, are exhorting taxpayers to invest in education, infrastructure and green energy.

Coming out of the 2012 election, the nation should have a clearer direction.