Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was asked, for instance, about his description on Sunday of the new national health-care law as “Obamneycare” — an effort to link Obama’s overhaul to the one that Mitt Romney championed and signed into law in 2006 when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Pawlenty demurred, and refrained from any direct criticism of the Romney plan while the two stood on the same stage. He said he was merely quoting Obama, who had previously said that he had modeled the federal law on the one in Massachusetts.
“The president is going to eat those words,” Romney retorted.
Romney called the new law “a huge power grab by the federal government,” and repeated his vow to repeal it if elected.
The biggest surprise of the evening was the announcement by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) that she has filed paperwork to begin her campaign. She had previously indicated that she would not make a formal announcement until later this month.
The debate — held at Saint Anselm College and 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.
Monday’s forum included nearly all the leading contenders. But most of them remain largely unknown nationally, a factor that could explain their reluctance to go at one another. At this early stage, they are introducing themselves to a nationwide audience, and testing their competitors’ strengths and vulnerabilities.
It is a Republican field unlike any other in generations. None of the candidates has been able to establish himself or herself as an overwhelming favorite. In the normal order of things, Romney would hold that position, by virtue of his organization, his fundraising network and the exposure he received from his 2008 run for the nomination.
But although Romney holds a lead in most national surveys, it has been a narrow one, particularly in comparison with the double-digit advantage that the front-running GOP contender normally has at this point.
In part, that reflects the fact that many conservatives are uneasy with parts of his record in Massachusetts, where his chief accomplishment was the passage of the health-care plan that became the model for Obama’s overhaul.
The Republican field also has been unsettled by the insurgent energy of the tea party movement, which represents a rebellion against the established order of GOP politics.
Romney was seeking to keep his focus on his strongest issues: the economy and jobs. New Hampshire, where he suffered a crippling defeat in 2008 to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is crucial to his hopes in 2012.