WASHINGTON - If Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and other Republican presidential hopefuls feel they need to close the gap on front-runner Mitt Romney, they didn't show it at the New Hampshire debate.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who leads in the early polls and fundraising efforts, had a surprisingly easy two hours Monday night. He looked calm and steady, criticizing President Barack Obama on the economy and health care while rarely being forced on the defensive despite some well-known vulnerabilities of his own.
With New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary half a year away, the seven GOP candidates seemed more eager to introduce themselves to voters in the televised event than to start ripping each other. They rarely differed on major policies.
All agreed that Obama has botched the economy and doesn't deserve a second term.
Near the end of the debate, Romney said anyone on the stage would be a better president than Obama. That was high praise for little-known candidate Herman Cain, libertarian hero Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum, who badly lost his last re-election bid in Pennsylvania. It also reflected how friendly everyone had been to Romney.
If any candidate had nearly as pleasant an evening as Romney, it was Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She made maximum use of CNN's live telecast to announce she was formally entering the race. And she showed a feisty but folksy style, perhaps grabbing an audience that many once thought would go to Sarah Palin, who was not present.
Before the debate, there were signs that Romney might be pressed harder on his record, especially the Massachusetts health care law that requires people to obtain health insurance. On Sunday, Pawlenty had derided the state law as "Obamneycare," because it served as a model for Obama's 2010 health care overhaul, which many conservatives detest.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, seemed loath to revisit the issue Monday. CNN moderator John King pressed him three times to explain why he had used the term "Obamneycare." Finally, Pawlenty replied somewhat weakly that it was "a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan."
King had no more luck enticing the other six contenders to comment on Romney's former support for legalized abortion, gay rights and gun control. He has switched his position on all those issues since his days as a Senate candidate and one-term governor in liberal-leaning Massachusetts.
King asked whether anyone on the stage felt Romney's authenticity was "an issue in the campaign." After a pause, Cain said, "Case closed," and the discussion turned to other topics.
The crowded stage and tight time constraints made it difficult to tease out meaningful differences between the candidates. Bachmann said that as president, she would not interfere with states that recognize same-sex marriages. Santorum and Romney said they support a constitutional amendment limiting marriage in all the states to one man and one woman.
Bachmann jumped back in, saying she supported that too. But she had been asked earlier whether she would try to challenge state laws on a one-by-one basis, a different question.
Gingrich, the former House speaker who suffered a wholesale campaign staff defection last week, appeared rather grim and determined to show his toughness. In the opening greetings, when most candidates said little more than hello, Gingrich vowed "to end the Obama depression." That set the tone for an evening focused on the president, leaving Romney and his fellow Republicans unbruised. "It was a very friendly debate to say the least, which helps Romney," Republican adviser Greg Mueller said. "No one took center stage and emerged as the main challenger to Romney."
A stiff challenge to Romney from the right "is there for the taking," Mueller said, "but did not happen tonight." Summer, fall and Christmas will pass before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary take place. Romney's rivals have plenty of time to mount their attacks. But on Monday in Manchester, they showed they are not ready yet.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)