Image: Pawlenty
Jim Cole  /  AP
Republican 2012 presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty speaks at Halligan Tavern during a meet and greet sponsored by the Derry Republican Committee on Sunday in Derry, N.H.
updated 6/13/2011 3:02:01 PM ET 2011-06-13T19:02:01

Mitt Romney readied Monday to share a debate stage for the first time with six of the likely rivals who want to strip him of his perceived frontrunner mantle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney, who has emerged as the GOP's candidate to beat during his second presidential bid, was going into his first debate with his critics already telegraphing their eagerness to link the former Massachusetts governor with President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Conservatives loathe the Democrats' plan that mandates all Americans have health insurance and was modeled on a Massachusetts law Romney signed into law.

"I strongly oppose the individual mandate at any level," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said on Sunday, previewing an expected line of criticism toward Romney. "I think it's a dramatic overreach."

Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics
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Elbowing Romney, Pawlenty said Obama had stated that "he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare."

Pawlenty was looking to use the evening debate to pitch himself as an alternative to Romney, who came up short four years ago in his bid for the nomination and hardly stopped campaigning. Conservatives who hold great sway in the nominating process, however, aren't rallying around Romney and are looking for an alternative.

Video: GOP presidential hopefuls gear up for debate (on this page)

Former Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire said the debate was an opportunity for Pawlenty "to move himself into a one-on-one campaign with Mitt Romney."

First Thoughts: GOP hopefuls debate in New Hampshire

"It's still early. No one has to bedazzle. But it's an opportunity for Pawlenty to pull out of that pack a little bit and show that this has the potential to be a strong two-man race," Sununu told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia also was set to make his presidential debate debut just days after his senior staff resigned en masse. Gingrich, who left Congress in 1999, on Sunday sought to restart his campaign and promised to wage a campaign to make Obama a one-term president.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, too, was making her first appearance in a presidential debate. Although not yet a formal candidate, the tea party favorite is expected to join the field soon.

Slideshow: The public life of Tim Pawlenty

Businessman Herman Cain of Georgia, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania again will join a presidential debate; they participated in a South Carolina debate that Romney skipped earlier this year.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, though, would be absent. A veteran of three Republican administrations before becoming Obama's ambassador to China, Hunstman is expected to join the field in the coming days. He has said he's not going to start debating before he announces he is officially running in a nominating process expected to formally begin with the Iowa caucuses in February of 2012.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: GOP presidential hopefuls gear up for debate

  1. Closed captioning of: GOP presidential hopefuls gear up for debate

    >>> could we see newt gingrich 2.0 tonight? he's one of seven gop hopefuls that are debating and he's trying desperately to keep his candidacy alive. he relaunched his campaign this weekend with a big policy peach after a bunch of his top aides quit.

    >> as one who has been in public life for nearly 40 years, i know full well the rigors of campaigns for public office . in fact, i've had some recent reminders. we will prevail.

    >> aides are putting some of the blame for newt's problems on his wife calista. joining me now "newsweek's" white house correspondent and writer for the daily beast . and karen finny msnbc political analyst and former dnc communications director . some reports that she's calling the shot, calista is. she insisted he go on this expensive greek cruise. you are not buying it.

    >> she's certainly the getting the blame from the gliter bombing we saw from a gay activist several weeks ago to the greek cruise recently. advisors were pinning some of the blame for her comments about -- her husband's comments about paul ryan 's medicare plan. so all of those together have left him very close to rock bottom . and certainly he's not getting the bulk of the personal responsibility it's being shifted to her in many ways.

    >> quote, at a moment when powerful men are destructing by betraying their wives, gingrich is self-destructing by honoring his. we've talked about this issue for the last week or two. so is that true? do you agree?

    >> i do. having worked on the clinton campaign back in 1992 and sort of every presidential since then, this is not the first time we've seen people try to blame the spouse for the failings of the candidate. you know, at the end of the day , the candidate is ultimately the person who is responsible for their campaign. whether that's his wife, his campaign manager or their finances, that's the person who's supposed to be making the decisions. newt even said himself that they make decisions as a couple. i believe that. i just think it's such an old tactic to try to say that -- to blame the wife and particularly men are doing just fine on their own imploding right now.

    >> right. you say it straight like you always do. dan, i want to show you the numbers from the polls we're watching on newt gingrich . gallup has this one. we take a look at newt gingrich in terms of 2012 hopefuls he's sitting low at 5%. then another poll to show you. romney at the top 24%. palin 20%. and then gingrich coming in at 10%. 2.0, when you take a look at the field right now, is it just too late?

    >> it's certainly not too late. one of the main things we're going to be watching for tonight many the debate is for those numbers to change. mitt romney is the front runner . everyone wants to catch him. remember, we're still several months out from the first primaries. i think what we're going to see tonight is efforts to difficult shl in ways of color. we saw tim pawlenty go bowling last night. that aides some character and depth. we're going to get away from policy. i think some of the candidates tonight aside from talking about the economy and attacking president obama , they're going to try to really craft their character to present to the american people .

    >> talking about pawlenty there, dan. let's listen to what he said.

    >> president obama said that he designed obama care after romney care. basically made it bamney care. we have essentially the same features.

    >> karen, they're now moving away from obama look at each other and have to dif isht themselves.

    >> romney has to walk a fine line , his tactic is clearly to be presidential, appear presidential. he's going to try to deflect as much as possible from the other candidates on the stage tonight and really go after make his argument about president obama on jobs in the economy. we see that in a web video that his campaign put out today. you saw the dnc put out a counter on some of the romney record on the economy. now the other candidates they're going to have to go between attacking obama as well as attacking romney . they don't want him to get too far out in front. what happens is this air of inevitablity which we've been talking a lot about how he's the front runner . these guys are going to keep him pulled back.

    >> we'll have to circle back after its done. thank you, both.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.


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