Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and one of the few candidates who didn't criticize the front-runner, remarked that he was "not particularly worried about Gov. Perry and Gov. Romney frightening the American people" about Social Security "when President Obama scares them every single day."
Businessman Herman Cain repeatedly touted his own economic plan. And in response to a question about what he would bring to the White House if elected, he said, "A sense of humor … because America's too uptight."
The debate's opening felt like a mix between a reality show and a sporting event. Moderator Wolf Blitzer delivered several minutes of introductory remarks above a throbbing bass line, followed by another departure: the singing of the national anthem.
Among the several hundred in the audience were former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney on Monday, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced his support for Perry.
The event was also something of a formal coming-out party for the tea party movement in the 2012 campaign, a tone set before the telecast began.
"We are here because we, the people, are going to choose the next Republican nominee for president, not the Republican Party," said Amy Kremer, co-chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, to enthusiastic applause.