The field of GOP presidential contenders appeared onstage for their first major debate in New Hampshire, taking aim at President Obama, criticizing his handling of the economy and vowing to repeal his health care overhaul.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner, set the tone for Monday night's debate by explaining that any of the Republican contenders present "would be a better president than President Obama."
Obama, he said, "has failed at job one, which is to get the economy going again. He failed at job two, which is to restrain the size of government, and he failed at job three, which is to have a consistent foreign policy," Romney said.
The New Hampshire event took place more than six months before the state plays host to the first primary of the 2012 campaign.
The seven candidates were so careful not to turn their rhetorical firepower against one another that Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, backed away from an attack he had launched just a day before on Romney, coining the term "Obamneycare" to conflate Romney's Massachusetts health care law with the Obama's national health care law.
Debate moderator John King of CNN pressed Pawlenty three times to explain the term.
Pawlenty finally offered up that he was simply quoting Obama as saying that he looked to Massachusetts while crafting the national program.
"He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the program,"Pawlenty explained. "So, calling it Obamneycare was a reflection of the president's comments."
Most of the debate, however, focused on the economy, which has undergone its worst downturn since the Great Depression and continues to dog the Obama administration.
Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain used what may have been the most colorful analogy of the evening to make a point.
"This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine," he said. "And this administration has simply been putting all of the money in the caboose. We need an engine called the private sector."
The typically verbose Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a leading figure in the Tea Party movement, was stumped when the moderator asked whether Obama had "done one thing right when it comes to the economy."
"Boy, that's a tough question. No, no, I can't think of anything," Paul said.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann made a mark in the first 10 minutes by announcing she was officially in the race, saying she had filed her paperwork the very day of the debate.
She reminded the audience that she led the House Tea Party caucus, but she tried to burnish her foreign policy credentials by discussing Libya.
"I sit on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. We deal with the country's vital national secrets. We, to this day, do not know who the rebel forces are that we're helping," she said.
While Bachmann tried to reach beyond social issues, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum made an overt pitch to the social conservatives around whom he has built his career.
"Not only have I been consistently pro-life; I've not just taken the pledge — I've taken the bullets," Santorum said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, hoping the debate would resuscitate his ailing campaign, damaged by a mass defection of his senior staff last week, tried again to explain why he once described House Republicans' Medicare plan as "right-wing social engineering."
"If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you'd better slow down," Gingrich said.
Instead, Gingrich, like the others, preferred to lay into the president's handling of the economy.
"When 14 million Americans are out of work, we need a new president to end the Obama Depression," he declared.
Pundits have been writing Gingrich off, but most voters are not yet focused on 2012.
One of the biggest applause lines of the night came from Romney, who gave the score from the Stanley Cup hockey finals just after a commercial break.
"And by the way — Bruins are up 4-0," he said to huge cheers.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was not present — her plans on whether to run are still up in the air.
Several other likely candidates have decided not to run, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. But at least one who ruled out a race is reconsidering. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he will decide after the state Legislature completes its current session.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Last night's Republican presidential debate came in the state that holds the first primary. New Hampshire will vote at the start of the year. And New Hampshire voters got a closer look at the field of contenders who want to challenge President Obama.
MONTAGNE: There was no Donald Trump. There was no Sarah Palin, at least not now. Several candidates could still jump in, as we'll hear in a moment.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ari Shapiro was at the debate.
ARI SHAPIRO: Romney gave protocol instructions to those who walked out on stage after him. Go down the line shaking everyone's hand, he said. When the applause stopped, Romney's voice was the first to break through.
MONTAGNE: Got awful quiet in here.
SHAPIRO: After a few minutes, the audience stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance. There was some confusion about who would lead it, and once more Romney's voice rang out.
MONTAGNE: I pledge allegiance to the flag...
SHAPIRO: Going into to this debate, some analysts said Romney's task was just not to mess up. After all, he has an early lead in polls. New Hampshire is his backyard, and he's more fiscal than social conservative - that ethos fits well with local attitudes here in the live free or die state. So Romney played the frontrunner last night, passing up many opportunities to attack his Republican rivals and aiming instead at the man in the oval office.
MONTAGNE: Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama. He has...
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
MONTAGNE: He has failed in job one, which was to get this economy going again. He failed in job two, which is to restrain the growth of government. And he failed in job three, which is to have a coherent, consistent foreign policy.
SHAPIRO: Last night, debate moderator John King of CNN asked about the term three times before Pawlenty finally answered the question.
MONTAGNE: If it were Obamneycare on "Fox News Sunday," why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
MONTAGNE: 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.
SHAPIRO: Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain used what may have been the most colorful analogy to make a point the other candidates seem to agree with.
MONTAGNE: 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. We need an engine called the private sector.
SHAPIRO: The typically verbose Texas Congressman Ron Paul was stumped when John King asked this about Obama.
MONTAGNE: Has he done one thing right when it comes to the economy in this country?
MONTAGNE: Boy, that's a tough question.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: No. No. I can't think of anything.
SHAPIRO: Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann made a mark in the first 10 minutes.
MONTAGNE: I filed today my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the United States, today.
SHAPIRO: Bachmann reminded the audience that she chairs the House Tea Party Caucus. She is sometimes compared to Sarah Palin, who was not on the stage last night. Bachmann has built a reputation as a staunch social conservative, but last night she tried to show a broader range on issues, including Libya.
MONTAGNE: I sit on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. We deal with the nation's vital classified secrets. We to this day don't yet know who the rebel forces are that we're helping.
SHAPIRO: While Bachmann tried to reach beyond social issues, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made an overt pitch to the social conservatives around whom he's built his career.
MONTAGNE: Not only have I been consistently pro-life, but I've taken the, you know, I've not just taken the pledge, I've taken the bullets.
SHAPIRO: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich strove to resuscitate his campaign last night. His senior staff quit all at once last week. Last night he also tried again to explain why he once described House Republicans' Medicare plan as right-wing social engineering.
MONTAGNE: If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you better slow down.
SHAPIRO: Pundits have been writing Gingrich off. But most voters are not yet focused on 2012 - even here in the first primary state of New Hampshire. One of the biggest applause lines of the night came from Romney, who gave the score from the Stanley Cup finals just after a commercial break.
MONTAGNE: And by the way, Bruins are up four-zero.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.