GOP rivals in debate bypass chance to slam Mitt Romney

Six Republican contenders chasing Mitt Romney largely sidestepped the chance to take shots at the nominal early front-runner during the first significant debate of the 2012 presidential race.

Going into the debate in New Hampshire—where the nation’s first primary will be held early next year—the expectation had been that Romney, along with President Obama, would bear the brunt of his rivals’ attacks. But no such scrum materialized as the candidates largely trained their fire on the incumbent.

Amid the largely friction-free affair, Rep. Michele Bachmann made news by unexpectedly declaring on live television that she was an official candidate for president. Bachmann, a “tea party” favorite from Minnesota, said she had filed the necessary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission earlier in the day.

Bachmann, 55, had been expected to announce later this month in Iowa, a state where she is hoping her appeal to religious conservatives can propel her forward.


Even with that attention-grabbing move, however, the focus of the evening was on Romney—and whether any of the candidates standing next to him on a stage in a college hockey arena in Manchester, N.H., would make a concerted effort to slow his momentum.

None did. One foe, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, passed up an early opportunity to attack on one of Romney’s biggest weaknesses: the healthcare plan he helped enact as governor of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts law is similar to the healthcare overhaul passed by the Democratic-led Congress last year. Pawlenty, just one day earlier, had referred to the Democratic healthcare overhaul law as “Obamneycare.”

The debate’s moderator, CNN’s John King, asked him to stand by that term. “Your rival is standing right here,” he said to Pawlenty. The candidate demurred, choosing instead to simply focus his criticism on Obama.

Later, in discussing abortion, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, asked whether Romney, who had once supported abortion rights, had flipped on the issue, largely avoided assailing him directly, instead referring obliquely to a candidate’s “authenticity.”

Given a chance to respond to questions about his record on the issue, Romney said, “I believe in the sanctity of life from the very beginning to the very end.”

King asked whether any other member of the panel took issue with that statement. None did.

It was a night instead where candidates emphasized the beliefs they held in common: cutting taxes as a means to stimulate economic growth, the need to shrink the size of the federal government, concerns regarding America’s involvement in the Libya’s internal conflict.

“We’ve got to have a totally new strategy for the region,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.


The debate provided Gingrich with a platform on which to try to revive his flagging campaign, reeling after the departure last week of top aides. Gingrich again attempted to explain his critique of Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s plan to reshape Medicare, one that earned him the enmity of some fellow Republicans.

In doing so, he distinguished himself from his competitors in one respect, by again suggesting that House Republicans had been too aggressive in advocating Ryan’s plan.

Gingrich was also one of the few members of the panel to interrupt another candidate, jawing with Pawlenty over the U.S. space program, one of the few tense episodes of the two-hour debate.

Beyond the chance to dent both Romney and Obama, the evening afforded some lesser-known candidates a chance to introduce themselves to the viewing public, including Bachmann, Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, and Herman Cain, the former chief executive officer of a pizza chain who has drawn some unexpected support in conservative circles.


“A lot of people don’t know us yet,” Cain said. Addressing the oft-asserted contention that the current GOP field lacks star power, Cain said voters “don’t see this as a weak field and neither do I.”

Still, the debate was likely to do little to quell incessant talk that another candidate, be it Texas Gov. Rick Perry or the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, may soon enter the race.

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to China, did not participate in the debate, but is widely expected to soon announce whether he will run for president.