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The Daily Need

Few sharp exchanges in first GOP presidential debate, as candidates assail Obama

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, listen during the first Republican presidential debate Monday. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

The full field of Republican presidential candidates met on the same stage for the first time Monday night in New Hampshire, seven months before the first vote of the primary season. But the candidates mostly passed on opportunities to draw sharp distinctions between one another, seeking instead to establish a united front in their attacks on President Obama.

In particular, observers were scrutinizing the dynamic between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, widely perceived as the front-runner, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has sought to position himself as the more ideologically palatable alternative to Romney. Pawlenty exhibited restraint when, early in the debate, he was asked to explain a phrase he had coined — “Obamneycare” — to describe similarities between President Obama’s health reform law and a Massachusetts measure signed by Romney in 2006.

“In order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you’ve got to be able to show that you’ve got a better plan and a different plan,” Pawlenty said. When asked why he had criticized the Massachusetts law, Pawlenty demurred, saying, “I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a guide,” and added: “He’s the one who said it’s a blueprint, and that he merged the two programs.”

Romney, for his part, sought at every turn to focus on jobs and the economy, saying President Obama had “failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy going.” Romney even defended Pawlenty when the moderator, CNN’s John King, asked Pawlenty to respond to critics of his job creation plan who say it relies on rosy projections of economic growth over the next several years. “Tim has the right instincts, which is he recognizes that what this president has done is slowed the economy,” Romney said. “He didn’t create the recession, but he made it worse, and longer.”

The latter assertion, of course, is not entirely true: While the current unemployment rate of 9.1 percent is far worse than what President Obama’s advisers had projected it would be even if the economic stimulus bill had not passed, many analysts agree that the measure has to some degree added jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report last month that said the stimulus had kept somewhere between 1.2 million and 3.3 million people employed, and had lowered the jobless rate by anywhere between .6 and 1.8 percentage points.

Even as they focused laser-like on the grim state of the economy, the seven Republicans on the stage also attempted — and at times struggled — to articulate a critique of the president’s foreign policy agenda. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota — a heroine of the Tea Party who announced, unexpectedly, that she had filed paperwork to formally launch her presidential campaign — said the administration’s decision to join the NATO bombing campaign in Libya was “substantially flawed.”

At times, however, Bachmann’s attack seemed muddled. At one point she assailed the president for “leading from behind” and deferring “leadership to France,” but also said the decision to wage an air campaign against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi was “absolutely wrong.”

“First of all, we were not attacked, we were not threatened with attack, there was no vital national interest” in bombing Libya, Bachmann said. “We to this day don’t yet know who the rebel forces are that we’re helping. There are some reports that they may contain Al Qaeda of North Africa. What possible vital national interest could we have to empower Al Qaeda of North Africa in Libya?”

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has struggled to breathe new life into his campaign after a series of high-profile defections by top-level aides, also assailed the president’s strategy in Libya and in the Middle East more broadly, saying the American intelligence network there had atrophied under Obama’s watch. “We have got to have a totally new strategy for the region,” Gingrich said.

The apparent strains in the Republicans’ attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy reflected an unusual dynamic for a party accustomed to having the upper hand in matters of national security. With the death of Osama bin Laden and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, voters generally have favorable views of the administration’s handling of international issues and the war on terror, according to a Gallup poll released last week.

Asked, for example, if he would continue the president’s policy of attacking Al Qaeda targets through drone strikes and other means in countries like Yemen, Pawlenty essentially agreed with the administration’s position. “If there are individuals I have intelligence on, or groups in Yemen that present a threat to our security interests in that region or the United States of America, you can bet they’ll hear from me, and we’ll continue those bombings,” Pawlenty said.

The candidates also sparred over contentious social issues, including those that have at times tripped up Romney, who has had to back-pedal on several of the more liberal positions he took as a candidate in solidly Democratic Massachusetts. Herman Cain, a businessman who has been criticized for saying he would be “uncomfortable” with appointing Muslim Americans to his cabinet, clarified that he would only bar “violent” Muslims from his administration: “When I said I wouldn’t be comfortable, I was talking about the ones that are trying to kill us.”

Romney, a Mormon who has struggled with unease about his faith among GOP primary voters, responded: “People of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.”

Romney and the others were also asked about their positions on gay marriage — which they promised to oppose — and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which they mostly said they would leave alone. For the most part, however, the candidates tried to return as often as possible to the economy, by far their most profitable issue. Unemployment remains high and shows no signs of falling. And other economic indicators — such as home ownership and consumer confidence — remain low as well.

“We ought to be talking about the economy and jobs,” Romney said at one point, responding to a question about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Later, Bachmann added: “This election will be about economics. It will be about, How do we create jobs?”