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The Morning Line: Romney Emerges an Emboldened Frontrunner From Debate

BY David Chalian and Terence Burlij  June 14, 2011 at 9:08 AM EDT

MANCHESTER, N.H. | Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney walked into his first debate of the 2012 nomination contest with a significant lead in national and New Hampshire polls, a campaign war chest multiple times larger than any of his opponents, and the lessons learned from a failed run for the Republican nomination four years ago.

He emerged with all those advantages intact and added a debate performance that went precisely according to plan. The other six Republican contenders on the stage chose to steer clear of taking him on directly even when the moderator, CNN’s John King, pressed them to do so.

Hoping to get former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to back up his swipe on the Sunday shows, when he coined the term “Obamneycare” to equate what Romney did on health care in Massachusetts to President Obama’s health care law, King urged him to make that critique in the face-to-face setting — but Pawlenty demurred.

“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,” asked King on his third attempt to get Pawlenty to engage Romney. 

“President Obama 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,” Pawlenty replied.

In that moment it became clear that Pawlenty did not come to the debate to back up his more aggressive approach to the frontrunner just a day before on a Sunday talk show.

The exchange allowed for Romney to close out the debate section on his greatest vulnerability, the individual mandate in the Massachusetts health care plan, by rhetorically challenging the president.

“I can’t wait to debate him and say, Mr. President, if, in fact, you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call and ask what worked and what didn’t?  And I would have told you, Mr. President, that what you’re doing will not work,” Romney said.

In fact, most of the fire from all of the candidates was trained on President Obama and his handling of the economy.

“This president is a declinist,” Pawlenty said.  “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 five percent growth in America is hogwash.  It’s a defeatist attitude.  If China can have five percent growth and Brazil can have five percent growth, then the United States of America can have five percent growth,” he added in defense of the goal he set forth in an economic policy speech last week.

The real news of the debate, if you can call a totally anticipated announcement news, occurred when Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., announced that she had filed the paperwork to become an official candidate for president. She said she would make a more formal announcement speech in the days to come.

Bachmann delivered a mostly strong and well prepared performance, demonstrating why she is going to be a potential force within the nomination contest. She also appeared to steal some of the Tea Party thunder from former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain who had a heralded debate performance last month in South Carolina.

Former Pennyslvania Sen. Rick Santorum, an opponent of abortion rights, was asked if he believed Romney had convincingly converted from a pro-abortion rights politician in Massachusetts to an anti-abortion rights Republican presidential candidate.

“I think an issue should be in looking at any candidate is looking at the authenticity of that candidate and looking at their — at their record over time and what they fought for.  And I think that’s — that a factor that — that should be determined,” Santorum said.

Newt Gingrich, who also participated in his first debate of the cycle, did little on the debate stage to resuscitate his campaign after it imploded last week when his entire senior staff resigned en masse.

Romney benefited from all the focus on President Obama and from the dominance of the economy as the main issue in the debate. And Bachmann’s strong entrance combined with Pawlenty’s less than stellar performance also plays nicely into Romney’s plan to end up in a contrast with an opponent from the Tea Party wing of the party rather than with Pawlenty or Huntsman who seek to become the establishment alternative to him.

OBAMA ON WEINER: ‘I WOULD RESIGN’

President Obama’s response to a question from NBC’s Ann Curry about embattled Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., left little doubt about his thoughts on the congressman’s future in Congress.

“I would resign,” the president said in the interview, taped Monday during a visit to Durham, N.C., and aired Tuesday on the “Today Show.”

A number of Democratic leaders in Congress have called on the seven-term New York congressman to step down, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, following his stunning admission last week that he had engaged in a series of online liaisons that involved sending lewd photos of himself to the women.

“Obviously what he did was highly inappropriate. I think he’s embarrassed himself, he’s acknowledged that, he’s embarrassed his wife and his family. Ultimately there’s going to be a decision for him and his constituents,” Mr. Obama told Curry. “When you get to the point where, because of various personal distractions, you can’t serve as effectively as you need to at the time when people are worrying about jobs and their mortgages and paying the bills, then you should probably step back.”

To this point, Rep. Weiner has resisted demands for his resignation and has instead requested a leave of absence from Congress to seek unspecified treatment. Whether he will be able to withstand the pressure now that the leader of his party has jettisoned him publicly remains to be seen.

OBAMA ON RAISING THE DEBT CEILING

In his “Today Show” interview the president also reiterated his contention that his administration and congressional leaders must reach an agreement on raising the federal government’s borrowing limit or risk doing severe damage not just to the U.S. economy, but the global market.

“I do not want to see the United States default on our obligations. The full faith and credit of the United States is the underpinning of not only our way of life, it’s also the underpinning of the global financial system,” the president said. “And we could actually have a reprise of a financial crisis if we play this too close to the line. So we’re going to be working hard over the next month and my expectation is we’re going to get it done in a sensible way.”

The president’s comments came in advance of Tuesday’s meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and the bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders appointed to negotiate a compromise on increasing the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned a deal must be reached to raise the $14.3 trillion ceiling by Aug. 2 or “lights out.”

At a briefing with reporters on Capitol Hill Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that “trillions” of dollars in spending cuts were possible in the budget talks, but continued to insist that tax increases were off the table.

But President Obama said Monday that any deal would have to be fair.

“The debate that’s going to be taking place between me and Republican members of Congress is not whether or not we’re dealing with deficit in an effective way. There’s a way of solving this problem that doesn’t require any big radical changes. What it does require is everybody make some sacrifices.  And we make these changes in a balanced way,” the president said.

“So far at least in the conversations that I’ve had, and that the vice president’s been hosting with leaders from both the House and the Senate, we’ve seen some progress. I think that where it’s going to get tough is right now Republicans are very resistant to any kind of revenue and would rather see us make some sacrifices in programs that the vast majority of the American people think are really important,” added Mr. Obama.