The organizers of Monday night's Republican debate apparently knew what they were doing when they lined up presidential hopefuls across New Hampshire's St. Anselm College stage in a way that reflected the contest's pecking order and ideological shape.
In the center -- politically, ideologically and physically -- was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, looking very much the early front-runner polls say he is. Placed on the ends by the main sponsor, CNN, were former Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain, probably the most ideologically extreme in the solidly conservative field. In between, two who seem more like interesting curiosities than true contenders -- Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- and two Minnesotans who might have the best chances in this field of overtaking Romney. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann may have provided the first major debate's lasting significance. Pawlenty, touted by many Republicans as potentially Romney's top challenger, underscored his weak persona by refusing to repeat criticism of the latter's Massachusetts health care plan. By contrast, tea party favorite Bachmann, who combines a Sarah Palin-like personal appeal with a more traditional political approach, made a stronger impression by speaking directly and knowledgeably on the issues. The two Minnesotans loom as major rivals in next-door Iowa's caucuses before New Hampshire's primary.
The debate generally resembled an echo chamber, as participants repeatedly attacked President Barack Obama and avoided criticizing each another.
They showed some differences on social issues, including how the federal government should combat legalized gay marriage in states like New Hampshire, and whether to overturn Obama's decision ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays.
Santorum said he would repeal Obama's policy. Cain and Paul said they wouldn't. Romney, Bachmann, Gingrich and Pawlenty said they would rely on the military's evaluation of the changes.
On economic issues, all favored cutting taxes and repealing Obama's health plan. But Romney got a pass -- and Pawlenty missed a chance -- when CNN moderator John King asked him to repeat his weekend criticism linking the two plans as "Obamneycare."
"I just cited President Obama's own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint," Pawlenty said.
Romney defended his plan as a state solution to a problem. He said he can't wait to debate Obama and ask, if he paid such attention to Massachusetts, "Why didn't you give me a call and asked what worked and what didn't?"
Pawlenty's rivals refused to build on widespread criticism that his economic plan was unrealistic in assuming 5 percent annual GDP growth.
"I think we need a president who is optimistic," Santorum said. Pawlenty insisted "this idea we can't have 5 percent growth is hogwash," even though reaching that level is rare.
Romney reflected his experience, showing he understands consistent message is a key to debate success, and repeatedly blasted Obama's economic record.
But one answer could dog him in the crucial Midwestern industrial states, his defense of his 2008 comment that if the federal government bailed out U.S. automakers, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye."
Paul, as in his 2008 bid, was often the odd man out, chiding rivals for not joining in criticizing the Federal Reserve's monetary policy and urging return of all U.S. troops abroad "as quickly as possible."
Presidential debates often give the mistaken impression one person can single-handedly reverse U.S. policies. Gingrich, the closest thing to a truth-teller, essentially repeated his prior political assessment of the controversial GOP Medicare plan: "If you can't convince the American people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea."
And he observed that to achieve its goals, the GOP needs to gain 12 Senate seats and 30 to 40 in the House -- as well as win the presidency.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorfgmail.com.
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