Mitt Romney, sometimes called the father of Barack Obama's health care overhaul, said he can't wait to repeal "Obamacare."
Tim Pawlenty awkwardly ducked when asked about just one day earlier criticizing Romney and deriding "Obamneycare." Newt Gingrich suggested Republicans may be off base on their Medicare restructuring plans, and Michele Bachmann seized the spotlight with red meat applause lines and an announcement that she is jumping into the presidential race.
The first debate featuring most of the major Republican candidates vying to take on President Obama in 2012 had been expected to feature multiple attacks on the frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. Instead, the other six candidates gathered in Manchester, N.H., for the CNN debate were positively deferential to the former presidential candidate.
Is it valid to question whether former abortion rights supporter Romney "genuinely changed his mind" or changed his position for political reasons? moderator John King asked. No one spoke up, except Herman Cain, the talk radio host and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza.
"Case closed," Cain responded.
King pressed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty about his appearance on Fox News Sunday when he took a shot at Romney and alluded to "Obamneycare." As Massachusetts governor, Romney supported a mandate for health insurance for all state residents, much like the controversial federal plan.
"Using the term Obamneycare was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan," responded Pawlenty, visibly uncomfortable as he stood near Romney.
The only real target of the Republican contenders, Obama, was 1,500 miles away Monday night raising money in Miami.
Obama "will be a one-term president," Rep. Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, vowed to applause at Saint Anselm College. The debate, sponsored by CNN, the New Hampshire Union Leader and WMUR-TV — was officially the second of the primary campaign season. But only five candidates showed up last month in South Carolina, and with the exception of Pawlenty, they were all long shots.
Polished and confident, Bachmann promptly made news in announcing she had filed papers to run. As a staunch social conservative, tea party favorite and Iowa native, she showed Monday night she could be a real force in the primary, particularly in the Iowa caucuses.
The clear winner, though, was Romney who finished the night without anyone leaving a mark of any kind on him.
Asked about NASA, a key issue in Florida, none of the candidates said they believed the government has an important role in funding and leading in space exploration. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the country would be better off if the private sector was in charge.
The debate underscored the volatility of Medicare reform and the proposal by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to restructure Medicare dramatically, essentially offering vouchers to subsidize health care for seniors born after 1957.
Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said they supported the plan, while Pawlenty said he had his own proposal. Gingrich suggested Republicans should slow down on the Ryan plan.
"If you can't convince the people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea,'' Gingrich said.
Asked about Afghanistan, Romney said troops should be withdrawn "as soon as we possibly can" — but under the discretion of generals.
That drew from U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a longtime war critic, one of the few sharp exchanges of the night.
"I'm the commander in chief," Paul said. "I tell the generals what to do."
Cain tried to clarify a prior comment about not allowing Muslims to serve in his administration.
"You have peaceful Muslims and you have militant ones, the ones who are trying to kill us,'' Cain explained. "Those are the ones I was thinking of."
Romney, whose Mormonism has drawn skepticism from some social conservatives, struck a softer note on the issue.
"I think we recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country," he said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.