Manchester, New Hampshire – Mitt Romney tried hard to stay above the Republican debate battle, Tim Pawlenty tried mightily to boost his stature and Michele Bachmann came on strong.
Everyone else at Monday night's GOP candidate debate scrambled to stand out in the crowded field.
The first debate of the 2012 presidential cycle in this state, which traditionally holds the nation's first primary, lacked the kind of barbs and bile these affairs usually generate. Romney, the clear New Hampshire poll front-runner, didn't get challenged hard on health care and abortion, two areas where critics say he's changed his views over the years.
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As governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law a near-universal health care plan considered a model for the 2010 federal health law championed by President Barack Obama.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, had a clear opening to tear into Romney, but didn't.
Pressed to repeat his charge — uttered only a day earlier — that the two plans were “Obamneycare,” Pawlenty wouldn't confront Romney. When pushed, he said he used the term because Obama compared his health care plan to Romney's.
“Using the term 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan,” Pawlenty said.
Romney was only gently challenged on abortion. When he ran for governor in 2002, he left abortion rights groups convinced he'd protect such rights. He has said that while he has always opposed abortion personally, he backed Massachusetts' voters' right to set their own legal standard.
Monday, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a longtime abortion opponent, said voters should note the “authenticity of a candidate” on such an issue.
Romney countered that he's “firmly pro-life.” No one else challenged him.
The two-hour debate offered little drama, other than an announcement by a resolute, tough-talking Bachmann, a three-term Minnesota congresswoman, that she has taken the formal steps to become a presidential candidate. She'll become the only woman in the race; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hasn't said whether she'll run.
The debate had several story lines.
Foremost was the effort by Romney and Pawlenty, who have appeal to the kinds of independent voters who can help win general elections, to remain statesmanlike and stay away from appearing extreme.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also was closely watched. His campaign nearly imploded last week as his top staff abruptly quit, saying he was not putting in the time or effort needed for a presidential run.
Gingrich stirred the ire of conservatives recently when he called House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan to dramatically revamp Medicare “right wing social engineering.” Monday, he said there are “certain things I'd do different” than Ryan.
The debate also was a battle between four more conservative candidates vying to become the favorite of the GOP's right wing. Scrapping for that mantle were Bachmann, Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and to some degree, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Outrage was often their weapon. Bachmann charged Obama “took away $500 billion, a half-trillion dollars out of Medicare, shifted it to Obamacare to pay for younger people, and it's senior citizens who have the most to lose in Obamacare.”
That figure is the savings projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office from the 2010 law's plan to save money in the Medicare program by creating more efficient ways of paying for care. Seniors, Democrats insist, should see few changes in their care.
The candidates largely agreed on two points: Obama has presided over an economic disaster, and the 2010 health care law, championed by Democrats, is a mess.
Romney refrained from sharply criticizing a much-derided Pawlenty economic plan that would cut taxes, and sets a goal of 5 percent annual growth. Most mainstream economists believe 2 percent to 3 percent rate is more realistic.
Romney said Pawlenty “has the right instincts which is he recognizes that what this president has done has slowed the economy.”
Candidates usually have three aims at these early affairs.
The first is to give the impression they're serious presidential material. Some are on their way to gaining that status; a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll taken June 3-7, showed that he and Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who's not in the race, were mentioned by three of four Republicans as qualified for the job.
The poll surveyed 433 Republicans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Pawlenty tried mightily Monday to join the big league. He didn't offer specifics for helping Medicare, but pledged “I will lead,” and on health care, he said, “you've got to be able to show you've got a better plan and a different plan.”
Bachmann tried, too. When asked about U.S. military involvement in Libya, she said that as commander-in-chief she wouldn't “lead from behind…the president was absolutely wrong in his decision.”
The second purpose of these early debates is to allow the public, particularly the insiders who most closely watch and analyze these events, to become familiar with — and like — the candidates.
Cain, Bachmann, Santorum and Pawlenty aren't well-known, according to polls, and offered quick resumes.
“I am not a politician. I am a problem solver with over 40 years of business and executive experience,” Cain declared at the outset. Santorum recalled how, as a congressman, he represented the working-class Pittsburgh area. Bachmann noted, “I'm a former federal tax litigation attorney. I'm a businesswoman,” as well as a “wife of 33 years” with five children and 23 foster children.
The third aim of candidates is to gain momentum. One of the next big tests of strength will be their ability to raise money — fundraising reports are due next month.
Romney, who developed a strong fundraising network when he ran for president in 2008, is expected to be well ahead. But anyone making a strong financial showing gains traction, and debates such as Monday's help convince donors to invest in candidates.
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