Reporting from Goffstown, N.H. — Mitt Romney led six of his Republican rivals in attacks on President Obama in a highly diffuse debate Monday night that did nothing to upend the former Massachusetts governor's front-runner status.
The nationally broadcast two-hour debate, the first major meeting of the 2012 presidential contest, hewed to Ronald Reagan's "11th commandment" of intraparty harmony. On more than one occasion, rival candidates ducked direct invitations to attack Romney. Tim Pawlenty, who had skewered Romney's healthcare mandate on Sunday as "Obamneycare," shrank from leveling that charge face to face on the New Hampshire debate stage.
The former Minnesota governor said that he was merely responding to a reporter's question on a talk show when he linked Romney's policy to the Obama plan, which is deeply unpopular among Republicans. Under prodding from CNN moderator John King to engage Romney on the issue, Pawlenty ducked and tried to put his offending phrase in Obama's mouth.
Photos: Potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates
"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," Pawlenty said, shrugging off ownership of the term he had used.
Another Romney rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a staunch social conservative, dodged when asked by an audience member whether the former Massachusetts governor's turnaround on the issue of abortion, from supporting abortion rights to being avowedly antiabortion, had been genuine or a matter of political calculation.
That prompted the moderator to ask the rest of the candidates whether his flip on abortion rights, an issue that dogged Romney in his unsuccessful 2008 run, should be important in 2012.
"Case closed," said businessman Herman Cain, and none of the others disagreed.
By the end of the debate, the most obvious beneficiaries were Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the "tea party" favorite who used the debate to announce her official entrance into the presidential race and to get off several zingers that roused the crowd.
"We need everybody to come together because we're going to win," she told the invited audience of several hundred Republican officials, campaign aides and undecided voters. "Just make no mistake about it. I want to announce tonight: President Obama is a one-term president."
The debate, in the first-in-the-nation primary state, was devoted largely to domestic issues. And the candidates showcased their agreement on a solidly conservative agenda: the need to cut taxes, set ambitious economic growth targets, make it more difficult for labor unions to organize, and repeal Obama's healthcare law. Except for Cain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, all the candidates also said they favored a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.
"Why isn't the president leading?" asked Romney, who commanded center stage. "He's failed the American people both on job creation and the scale of government."
Romney included foreign policy on his list of Obama's shortcomings, though he was more cautious than the others about speeding up the pace of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, an idea that appeared to gain audience support after Paul, a staunch foe of U.S. military intervention, remarked that the American presence there "is not making friends."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for a speedier pullout from throughout the Middle East. Bachmann also sharply criticized Obama's policy in Libya, saying that he had deferred to France in involving the U.S. military. "That's all we need to know," she said.
In contrast to last month's Fox News debate in South Carolina, which featured tough questioning from a panel of interviewers, the CNN-produced forum was deliberately freewheeling. It included questions from remote locations, occasional shots of large TV screens that scrolled comments, questions via social media outlets and participation from the audience in the hall.
A result, however, was fewer follow-up questions from the moderator, which often made it easy for the candidates to evade issues they didn't care to discuss, and abrupt jumps from one issue to another.
Anticipating that Obama would be a target, the president's supporters were ready to push back, led by former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. He criticized Romney's and Pawlenty's records at the state level in talking points echoed by Brad Woodhouse, communications director of the Democratic National Committee. He said in an email before the debate that the Republican candidates were eager "to return to the failed Republican policies of the last decade that put our economy on the brink of a second Great Depression."
Though the GOP candidates occupied the same stage, they aimed their remarks at different audiences.