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.
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.
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?
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.
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.