Video: Obama policies in spotlight at GOP debate

By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 6/13/2011 11:35:15 PM ET 2011-06-14T03:35:15

No excruciating gaffes, no memorable blow-ups in Monday night’s debate among seven Republican presidential hopefuls, but there was the beginning of an intriguing contrast in personalities.

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The apparent front-runner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, seemed self-assured and remarkably unchanged from the man who ran four years ago.

Romney faced former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the only woman in the race and a champion of the Tea Party movement.

Former ambassador to China and Utah governor Jon Huntsman did not take part in the debate, but is expected to formally announce his candidacy within days.

Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics (on this page)

When Romney offered something new or potentially controversial, he did it in a measured and careful way, as when he said that one lesson of the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was that American troops “shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.”

Romney's caution on Afghanistan
But he did not commit himself to a specific plan for withdrawal of the troops. “I want those troops to come home, based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.”

Two questions were raised by Romney’s statement: was the war in Afghanistan really a war of independence, or was it an internal struggle among factions? Would the conditions on the ground allow for U.S. withdrawal in the next ten years, since they hadn’t allowed for it in the past ten years?

Slideshow: The public life of Tim Pawlenty (on this page)

And there was the newcomer to national stage, Pawlenty, who seems at this point the major mainstream rival to Romney, who used his opportunity to introduce himself to voters as something of a blue-collar guy, a populist, and a hawk when it comes to national defense.

He twice told viewers that he’d been a labor union member and understood blue-collar communities, “I grew up in meat packing town,” — perhaps a subtle reminder that Romney was a wealthy former business executive.

On trade accords with other nations, Pawlenty said “I’m for fair and open trade, but I’m not for being stupid and I’m not for being a chump.”

He offered a blistering critique of what he called “crony capitalism,” the alliance of the federal government and favored industries or companies.

Slideshow: Newt Gingrich (on this page)

Pawlenty seemed at times to try to don the mantle of Ronald Reagan, evoking the rhetoric of America having a special place in the world. He accused President Barack Obama of being "a declinist. He views America as one of equals around the world. We're not the same as Portugal; we're not the same as Argentina. And this idea that we can't have 5 percent growth in America is hogwash."

Pawlenty's moment of uncertainty
His one moment of uncertainty came when CNN host John King asked him why he had used the term “Obamneycare” on Fox News Sunday in pressing his attack on Romney, when Pawlenty had argued that the federal health care overhaul was based on Romney’s 2006 Massachusetts law. It was only after repeated prompting from King that Pawlenty reverted to his use of “Obamneycare.”

"My using 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments," Pawlenty said. It almost seemed as if Pawlenty were reconsidering right there on stage whether he ought to have used that pejorative and was surprised that King would question him on it.

Romney for his part complained — somewhat implausibly — that Obama had not called him to ask for his advice before the president pushed for overhaul of the nation’s health insurance system. He also said of Obama, “I can’t wait to debate him.”

Romney vowed to undo Obama’s health care overhaul and to allow the states to experiment with their own reforms. “Ours was a state plan, a state solution and if people don’t like it in our state, they can change it…. States are right place for this type of responsibility,” he said.

But with the exception of Gingrich — who began to make the case that an individual mandate  requiring people to buy health insurance was an unconstitutional expansion of federal power — none of Romney’s rivals seemed able to dramatize the point that the mandate that Romney made law in Massachusetts was no different in principle from the one in the law Obama signed last year.

Romney praise for Pawlenty
At one point, Romney graciously said of his rival Pawlenty “Tim has the right instincts” — referring to Pawlenty’s economic proposal that would aim at 5 percent annual economic growth.

And Romney’s rivals for most of the debate treated him gently, with only oblique criticism for the most part.

When the topic of Romney’s 2005 change of position on abortion came up, Santorum said voters had to judge a candidate’s “authenticity,” but none of Romney’s rivals seemed eager to make an issue of why Romney had changed his mind.

Bachmann — who used the debate to announce that she had filed papers earlier in the day to run for president — got a huge round of applause when she flatly predicted that Obama would be a one-term president.

She made the most of her debut as presidential contender by telling viewers of her staunch opposition to the TARP bailout of the financial sector in 2008 and her career as a former tax lawyer and foster mother of 23 children.

Attention-getting statements were left mostly to Paul, happily playing the role of the libertarian gadfly and foreign policy noninterventionist, as he did in 2008 debates.

True to his free market, anti-interventionist beliefs, Paul made the case that economic corrections are good and that housing prices needed to come down even further “to clear the market.”

“We should think about protecting our borders, rather than the borders between Iraq and Afghanistan,” Paul said earlier in the debate.

Gingrich thinks Ryan is moving too fast
Gingrich drew much harsh criticism from Republicans last month when he called the Medicare redesign in the plan offered by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan “right-wing social engineering.” He said in the debate that he had been quoted out of context on the Ryan plan.

But he stuck to his substantial critique of the plan: that Ryan was moving too quickly to try to enact his proposal, despite clear signals of uneasiness from the American people.

Among those watching Monday night's debate with keen interest were political figures such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin. Some GOP insiders are showing an increasing interest in Perry, based in part on what they called an impressive speech at a Republican National Committee meeting last month.

Palin made a campaign-style foray earlier this month that included New Hampshire and she happened to be in the Granite State on the very day that Romney formally launched his candidacy.

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Photos: Newt Gingrich

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  1. Rep. Newton Gingrich, R-Ga., meets with reporters in Washington, D.C,. on March 1, 1979. Gingrich was first elected to public office in January 1979 representing Georgia's 6th District after two previous unsuccessful runs. He was subsequently re-elected 10 times. (John Duricka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Gingrich with his first wife, Jackie, and their daughters, Jackie Sue and Kathleen. Gingrich was married three times, his first in 1962, to his former high school geometry teacher, Jackie Battley. At the time, he was 19 and she was 26. They split in 1980 following an affair Newt had with Marianne Ginther, whom he married six months after the divorce was final. (Calvin Cruce / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Gingrich laughs at a joke told by President Ronald Reagan during one of his speeches on Jan. 26, 1984 in Atlanta. In 1983 Gingrich founded the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of young conservative House members, which Reagan borrowed ideas from for his 1984 re-election campaign. (Joe Holloway, Jr. / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gingrich, left, is congratulated by House Minority Leader Bob Michael after he was elected minority whip on March 22, 1989. Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Republican Conference chairman, is at the right. Gingrich succeeded Dick Cheney following his appointment as Secretary of Defense in a close election in which he beat Edward Rell Madigan. (John Duricka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gingrich, the House minority whip, addresses Republican Congressional candidates on Capitol Hill on Sept. 27, 1994, during a rally where they pledged a "Contract with America." The contract laid out 10 promises that the Republicans would bring to vote on the House floor including tax cuts, term limits and a balanced budget amendment. House Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois did not run for re-election that year, giving Gingrich his chance at becoming Speaker of the House which he did in November. (John Duricka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Gingrich uses a chart during a press conference on Capitol Hill, May 2, 1995, to demonstrate what will happen to Medicare if it isn't shored up. Republicans have accused the Clinton Administration of evading the program's growing financial problems. The conflict between Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress over Medicare, healthcare, education and the environment led to the longest federal government shutdown in history. (Richard Ellis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. President Bill Clinton and Speaker Gingrich laugh during their open question forum at the Earl Bourdon Senior Center in Claremont, N.H., on June 11, 1995. The forum appeared cordial and friendly in an atmosphere of non-partisan cooperation despite the tension between the men. Clinton campaigned on a promise of welfare reform, but Gingrich accused him of stalling as two proposed bills were vetoed. Gingrich then personally negotiated with the President and a bill was passed on Aug. 22, 1996. (John Mottern / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Candace Gingrich, Gingrich's lesbian half-sister, waves to the crowd during the 25th Annual San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade on June 18, 1995. Newt Gingrich has stated his opposition to same-sex marriage and the adoption of children to same-sex couples. (John G. Mabanglo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Speaker Gingrich, left, talking with Clinton, right, aboard Air Force One, Nov. 5, 1995, as the plane headed to Israel and to the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Gingrich said that the president slighted him during the flight which helped prompt the partial shutdown of the federal government. From second from left are, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, former Secretary of State George Shultz, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, White House press secretary Mike McCurry and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. (White House via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gingrich feeds a white Bengal tiger, named Kaboul, while hosting the Larry King Live television show, March 29, 1996, in Washington. Gingrich, who frequently hosts events featuring rare animals, was promoting April as "National Zoo and Aquarium Month." Gingrich is known for his interest in animals and wrote an introduction for the book 'America's Best Zoos.' (J. Scott Applewhite / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Gingrich and his second wife, Marianne, leave their home for Capitol Hill, Jan. 7, 1997. During his term as House speaker, 84 ethics charges were filed against him, all but one were eventually dropped. On Jan. 21, 1997, the House voted to reprimand Gingrich, the first time in its history that the Speaker of the House had been disciplined for ethics violations. (Mark Wilson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Gingrich hugs Christine DeLay, right, wife of Rep. Tom DeLay, and her daughter Dani, near the caskets of Capitol police officer Jacob Chestnut and Special Agent John Gibson that lie in state in the Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on July 28, 1998. Gibson and Chestnut were killed July 24 by a gunman who charged past the Capitol security and opened fire in the building. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Gingrich and John Boehner, left, with then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Conference vice chairman Jennifer Dunn, at news conference with entrepreneurs promoting the GOP tax relief plan, on July 17, 1997. That summer, an attemped 'coup' to replace Gingrich as speaker of the U.S. House took place with Boehner and Bill Paxton leading a group including Armey and Tom DeLay. (Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Gingrich shakes hands with Clinton as First Lady Hillary Clinton and Rep. Barbara Kennelly watch before the president signed the Balanced Budget Agreement on the South Lawn of the White House August 5, 1997, in Washington. The budget agreement was reached after much negotiating and included cuts designed to balance the budget by 2002. As the economy improved Gingrich asked Clinton to submit a balanced budget for 1999, ahead of schedule, which he did. (Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. President Clinton shakes hands with Speaker Gingrich beside Vice President Albert Gore prior to the president's State of the Union address to the 105th Congress on Capitol Hill, January 27, 1998, in Washington. Gingrich was one of the leaders of the Republicans seeking to impeach Clinton following the Moncia Lewinsky scandal. It was during this time, that Gingrich himself was having an affair with a House staffer, Callista Biske, 23 years his junior. (Luke Frazza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Speaker Gingrich talks with a customer after signing his book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," at Borders Books in Charlotte, N.C., April 8, 1998. A prolific reviewer on, Gingrich himself has written or co-authored over 20 books, most of them historical non-fiction. (Andy Burriss / The Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Speaker Gingrich hugs neighbor Lucia Roy in front of his house in Marietta, Ga., before making an announcent to the press that he is stepping down, Nov. 7, 1998. Following the mid-term elections in which the Republicans lost five seats and Gingrich took much of the blame, he decided to leave. (Ric Feld / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gingrich and his third wife, Callista, during a visit to the U.S. Capitol for the unveiling of Gingrich's official portrait on Nov. 15, 2000, shortly after they were married. Gingrich admitted to the extra-marital affair during an interview aired March 9, 2007, with conservative Christian leader James Dobson. Gingrich divorced his second wife Marianne in 2000 when his attorneys acknowledged his relationship with Callista Bisek, a former congressional aide who is now his wife. (Mario Tama / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton listen to former Speaker Gingrich during a media conference on Capitol Hill on May 11, 2005, in Washington, D.C. Kennedy, Tim Murphy and Gingrich held the news conference to announce a bill that would transform the healthcare system by creating digital health information networks. In 2003 Gingrich founded the Center for Health Transformation to develop a new healthcare system. He supported the Medicare Prescription Drug Act and advocated with Hillary Clinton on healthcare information technology. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Newt Gingrich, formerly a southern Baptist, converted to his wife's faith, Catholicism, in March of 2009. Here, he discusses a new film he co-produced on Pope John Paul II's historic role in defeating communism in eastern Europe, on June 9, 2010, in Warsaw, Poland. In 2007, Gingrich wrote 'Rediscovering God in America,' which attempted to show that the founding fathers intended to encourage religious expression. (Czarek Sokolowski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Gingrich speaks at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, Jan. 25, 2011, in Des Moines. Gingrich has advocated replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with the an 'environmental solutions agency,' while also supporting a flex-fuel mandate for cars sold in the U.S. (Charlie Neibergall / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gingrich speaks to reporters after a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, March 18, 2011. Gingrich initiallly supported a U.S. military intervention in Libya before he was against it. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Gingrich poses with Georgia Republican delegates Irene Karakolidis and Pearlie Sicay Finchers, right, while campaigning at Finchers BBQ, May 13, 2011, in Macon, Ga., after announcing two days earlier his intention to run for the GOP presidential nomination. (John Amis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich talk to media after their meeting in New York, Dec. 5, 2011. Trump, who flirted with running himself, met with many of the GOP candidates -- all hoped to get his support. Gingrich didn't get his endorsement, but did get a commitment to mentor a group of children from New York's poorest schools. (Seth Wenig / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich talk during the ABC News GOP Presidential debate on the campus of Drake University on Dec. 10, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. Gingrich surged ahead in the polls and became the target for criticism from his opponents. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich share a light moment during their Lincoln-Douglas style debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Dec. 12, 2011. Gingrich hoped to revive the format, from 1858, on live television. So far, only Huntsman has accepted his offer to debate one-on-one. (Brian Snyder / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Newt Gingrich speaks to reporters during a campaign stop at the Southbridge Mall in Mason City, Iowa, Dec. 28, 2011. By late December, Gingrich had fallen in the polls, just in time for the Iowa caucus. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wipes away a tear while speaking about his deceased mother during a forum put together by Moms Matter 2012, Dec. 30, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. The normally confident, even brash candidate, showed his emotional side a few days before the first test with voters in Iowa. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Newt Gingrich is applauded by his wife, Callista, right, at his Iowa Caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2012. Gingrich placed fourth, behind challengers Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. The dramatic fall came after a barrage of negative attack ads sponsored by a Romney-supporting super PAC. (Jeff Haynes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Newt Gingrich makes a point during the opening question of a debate at the North Charleston Coliseum Jan. 19, 2012 in Charleston, S.C., next to Mitt Romney. The debate, before South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, was opened with a question to Gingrich about statements made by his second wife, Marianne, which prompted a hostile response. In an interview with ABC News, she claimed Gingrich asked her to choose between an open marriage or a divorce after revealing his affair with the woman who is now his now third wife. To CNN's John King, the moderator of the debate, he replied, "To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Gingrich smiles during a campaign event at the Grapevine Restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., on Jan. 21, 2012. After fourth place finishes in Iowa in New Hampshire, Gingrich picked up an endorsement by Rick Perry,who dropped out of the race. Gingrich won South Carolina's primary by 12-points over Mitt Romney. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Former presidential hopeful Herman Cain endorses Newt Gingrich at a campaign event on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 in West Palm Beach, Fla. The announcement was a surprise to Gingrich staff following Cain's previous endorsement of "the American people." (NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista attend his Florida primary night party Jan. 31, in Orlando. Mitt Romney defeated Gingrich by 14% to win Florida's primary, but Gingrich vowed that he was staying in the race, reminding voters at most states have yet to vote. Florida is a winner-take all state and with it's 50 delegates, Romney pulled ahead witih 87 delegates to Gingrich's 26. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Gingrich leans in to speak with his grandson as he announces he is suspending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination May 2, 2012 in Arlington, Va. "Today, I'm suspending the campaign but suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship. Callista and I are committed to be active citizens. We owe it to America. We owe it to Maggie and Robert," Gingrich said, referring to his two grandchildren. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    John Duricka / AP
    Above: Slideshow (34) Newt Gingrich
    Slideshow (30) Mitt Romney's life in politics
  3. Republican Tim Pawlenty Is Elected Governor Of Minnesota
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    Slideshow (7) The public life of Tim Pawlenty