GWEN IFILL: The state of New Hampshire, which relishes its role as home of the first primary, played host last night to its first 2012 Republican presidential debate.
By the time the GOP candidates lined up to debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, they numbered seven. But they were not there to debate each other. The candidates instead spent much of the evening criticizing the Democrat each hopes to get the chance to defeat: President Obama.
Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney blasted the president's handling of the economy.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: What this president has done has slowed the economy. He didn't create the recession, but he made it worse and longer.
GWEN IFILL: So did former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
TIM PAWLENTY, (R) presidential candidate: This president is 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.
GWEN IFILL: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also joined the chorus.
NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: The Obama administration is an anti-jobs, anti-business, anti-American energy, destructive force.
GWEN IFILL: The candidates said any Republican on the stage would do a better job turning the stumbling economy around than the man now in the White House.
RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: And what's happened in this administration is that they have passed oppressive policy and oppressive regulation after -- Obamacare being first and foremost.
GWEN IFILL: Former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain:
HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine. And the administration has simply been putting all of this money in the caboose.
GWEN IFILL: Texas Congressman Ron Paul was asked by CNN moderator John King if the president deserved credit for anything.
JOHN KING, Moderator: Has he done one thing -- has he done one thing right when it comes to the economy in this country?
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas presidential candidate: Boy, that's a tough question.
REP. RON PAUL: No, no, I can't think of anything.
GWEN IFILL: And Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann drew cheers from the crowd for this prediction.
MICHELE BACHMANN, (R) presidential candidate: Make no mistake about it. I want to announce tonight: President Obama is a one-term president.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Bachmann also made another announcement last night: She has filed the paperwork and is now an official candidate for president.
Joining me now to look more closely at some of the key moments in last night's encounter is NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian, just off the plane from Manchester.
So, David, who accomplished what he or she set out to do last night?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, first of all, I think the field accomplished what they set out to do collectively, which was, exactly as you laid out there, attack President Obama. And that's where most of the fire went during this debate.
They chose not to differentiate themselves from each other too much. But I think Michele Bachmann accomplished what she set out to accomplish, and that was to sort of dazzle. She made that surprise announcement, into the race. That got her some attention and buzz.
And also she instantly separates herself because she's the only woman on that stage. So, I think she will be continuing to be somebody who provides a bit of spark and spunk into this field.
I also think that Romney accomplished what he set out to accomplish, He wanted to be the grownup and the adult in the room. And I think he got to do that, mostly because his competitors chose not to attack him.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about that. No one laid a hand on him. Tim Pawlenty, who had gone on a Sunday talk show and said -- he talked about Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts as Obamneycare, which is saying it was rooted in President Obama's plan -- the other way around -- was rooted in his.
DAVID CHALIAN: Exactly.
GWEN IFILL: Anyway, but he wasn't as tough last night. Let's listen to what he had to said.
JOHN KING: The question, governor, was, why Obamneycare?
TIM PAWLENTY: That's right. Well, I'm going to get to that, John.
JOHN KING: You have 30 seconds, governor.
TIM PAWLENTY: Yes, so we -- this is another example of him breaking his promise, and he has to be held accountable. And in order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you have to be able to show that you've got a better plan and a different plan.
We took a different approach in Minnesota. We didn't use top-down government mandates and individual requirements from government. We created market alternatives and empowered consumers. I think that's the way to fix health care in the United States of America.
JOHN KING: But you chose -- you say you were asked a question, which is fair enough, but you chose those words. And so one of my questions is, why would you chose those -- choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio?
Your rival is standing right there. If it was Obamneycare on "FOX News Sunday," why isn't it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
TIM PAWLENTY: It is -- President Obama is -- is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the two programs.
And so using the term "Obamneycare" was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
GWEN IFILL: At which point John King, who had tried three times to get him to repeat what he said on "FOX News Sunday," gave up and moved on.
GWEN IFILL: Why did Tim Pawlenty not follow through on that harsh critique?
DAVID CHALIAN: You know, he set his own trap here, and he fell into it.
By going on "FOX News Sunday" and sort of setting that up the day before the debate, the strongest critique one candidate has made of another -- and when you're two leading candidates like that, we all in the press pay attention to that, real strong rebuke on Sunday.
And then not to back it up when you're face to face with him at the debate, it shows that you may not be ready for prime time. And Tim Pawlenty had a problem here. This debate, he needed to go out and really establish -- establish himself as the alternative to Mitt Romney, a real contender. He needs to do that to raise money. He needs to do that to raise his profile.
And, instead, he chose to back down and demure. And it wasn't well-received. It was a tough night for Tim Pawlenty.
GWEN IFILL: OK, let's -- as you're talking about alternatives, Michelle Bachmann is clearly presenting herself as an alternative and a representative of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, but also Tea Party sentiment around the country.
Let's listen to what she had to say in basically trying to redefine what Tea Partyism is.
MICHELE BACHMANN: What I have seen in the Tea Party -- I'm the chairman of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. And what I have seen is, unlike how the media has tried to wrongly and grossly portray the Tea Party, the Tea Party is really made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who've never been political a day in their life, people who are libertarians, Republicans.
It's a wide swathe of America coming together. I think that's why the left fears it so much, because they're people who simply want to take the country back. They want the country to work again.
GWEN IFILL: Wide swathe reminds me of big tent. It seem like she's trying to broaden what the base is there.
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. She doesn't want to be relegated to just the right wing of her party. That is where most of her energy comes from. It's why we look at Iowa as a potential real proving ground for her, because the right wing sort of dominates the caucuses there.
But she is looking for that broader appeal to the party. She doesn't want an -- she doesn't want to be not seen as a real contender, as you were saying, as the alternative also. But she does represent that Tea Party wing. That is where the energy is from. And that was the energy that fueled so much of the Republicans' success in 2010.
So, she is not going to go so far as to all of a sudden declare that the Tea Party is really full of Democrats, but she does want to broaden her appeal a little bit to the entire swathe of the Republican nominating electorate.
GWEN IFILL: And even though most of the debate was about President Obama, about the economy, and about some social issues, like gay marriage and abortion -- no surprises there -- we also saw a little foray into foreign policy. In fact, maybe we could call it a new Romney doctrine toward Afghanistan.
Let's listen to what he said.
MITT ROMNEY: I think we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. 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.
But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban.
GWEN IFILL: What was Romney trying to do here?
DAVID CHALIAN: I think he's trying to start leading the way for his party to start talking differently about this 10-year-old war in Afghanistan. And I think it's going to be a really fascinating development to watch.
We see in Mitt Romney here not just parroting the George W. Bush/John McCain language that we saw dominate the Iraq debate in the last presidential election, purely relying on the generals on the ground. Now you hear him starting to say, hey, I get it. This is a war-weary nation. And we really need to put the burden on the Afghans to take care of their own independence.
It's nuanced, but it's a different emphasis. One of his potential contenders, or now real contender, Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, said he's going to actually formally get into the race next week.
GWEN IFILL: Well, I was going to ask you about that. He was not on the stage last night, but, today, he comes out and says, ah, a week from today, here I come.
DAVID CHALIAN: Exactly.
And he immediately got off that stage after saying that, and also talked about Afghanistan, went even further, saying, I think we're only going to have about 10,000, 15,000 troops there.
GWEN IFILL: Who said that?
DAVID CHALIAN: Jon Huntsman...
GWEN IFILL: Ah.
DAVID CHALIAN: ... after he made those comments today.
He's been going even further than Romney and others that we have seen on the stage. He says it's not affordable to be in Afghanistan anymore. So, I think you're going to start seeing a real debate about Afghanistan policy inside the Republican primary here. They want it to be President Obama's war and his problem to solve.
GWEN IFILL: So, they're starting to draw distinctions among themselves, as well as with the president.
DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt.
GWEN IFILL: David Chalian, thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.