MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Looking to set themselves apart, rivals to Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney sharpened their criticism of the former Massachusetts governor before their first presidential campaign debate with him Monday night.
The debate in the early primary state of New Hampshire could provide an early test of Romney's ability to weather the pummeling he's getting for his state's health care overhaul, which was the model for the Democrats' national effort that is loathed by many conservatives. Ahead of the debate, the other Republican candidates already were competing among themselves over who would emerge as an alternative to the second-time presidential hopeful.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty tweaked that President Barack Obama "designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare."
The field of likely GOP contenders is still coming together and, while Romney has emerged as formidable in organization and fundraising, many Republicans are keeping their options open. Contenders such as Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- all set to debate -- have tried to fill the role of an anti-Romney candidate in the contest to pick who will face Obama in November of 2012.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who is not yet a formal candidate, also was expected to join businessman Herman Cain of Georgia and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas on stage.
Polling gives Romney the early advantage, but there is much uncertainty at this juncture. For example, Bachmann is set to join the race in the coming days and perhaps give the tea partyers a candidate to get behind.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman skipped the debate because he is not yet a declared candidate. But for business-minded Republican voters, the former business executive and ambassador to China could appeal to the Wall Street wing of the GOP.
In the wings, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has stoked speculation she may compete for the nomination. Should she run, she would be expected to run a nontraditional campaign, perhaps favoring an online pathway to the nomination over the traditional early nominating states.
And from Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has started to build talk about a potential bid. He has sheduled a trip to New Orleans this weekend to speak with a conservative conference that is drawing most of the presidential hopefuls.
Eight months before the first nominating contests begin in Iowa, the Republicans have yet to fully engage each other in public. Most of their time has been spent on fundraising; the finance reports that must be released by July 15 will be a key measure of viability.
And soon after, a straw poll in Ames, Iowa, will test their organizations.