Romney survives first test in debate with GOP rivals

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent June 13, 2011

Mitt Romney easily survived his first test of the 2012 campaign here Monday night, cruising through a debate with six Republican rivals who were more interested in attacking President Obama than in turning their fire on the former Massachusetts governor.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

In his first debate of the campaign, the nominal front-runner for the GOP nomination seemed eager for the spotlight. Through two hours of questioning, he delivered a steady performance, made no obvious errors and stuck to his campaign game plan of focusing his message on the president and the economy.

The first big debate of the Republican campaign — hosted by CNN, WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper — produced no real fireworks and few memorable moments. For most of the candidates, this was a night for introductions rather than confrontations. Among the others, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced her candidacy onstage, may have done herself the most good with a personable and energetic performance.

The tone and tenor of the debate suited Romney just fine. In that sense, Monday’s forum at St. Anselm College may prove an anomaly by the time the primaries and caucuses arrive early next year. Romney likely will look back at this forum as one of the easy ones and far from a true test as he seeks the nomination.

Romney was able to keep his focus on Obama in large part because the others decided not to go after him.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty ducked an opportunity to challenge Romney for enacting a health care plan in Massachusetts that resembled the law Obama signed last year. On Sunday, Pawlenty had attacked Romney’s plan, and Obama’s, with the dismissive shorthand “Obamneycare.” On Monday night, he wouldn’t go near the phrase and insisted that he was really just criticizing the president and his health-care plan.

Pawlenty offered only tepid and indirect criticism of Romney. “In order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you have to be able to show that you’ve got a better plan and a different plan. We took a different approach in Minnesota,” he said. “We didn’t use top-down government mandates and individual requirements from government.”

With no one pressing Romney on the issue that presents one of the greatest vulnerabilities to his candidacy for the nomination, the former Massachusetts governor was able to deliver a stock answer and join others in emphasizing that, as president, he would seek to repeal the president’s health-care law.

“I can’t wait to debate him and say, ‘Mr. President, if in fact you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call and ask what worked and what didn’t?’ ” Romney said. “ ‘And I would have told you, Mr. President, that what you’re doing will not work.’ ”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was given the opportunity to take on Romney for having changed positions on abortion before he ran for president in 2008, switching from supporting to opposing abortion rights. Asked whether that raised questions about Romney’s authenticity, Santorum equivocated, preferring to point to himself as someone who would keep issues like abortion at the front of his agenda as president. He offered only a mild rebuke of Romney.

“I think an issue should be, in looking at any candidate, is looking at the authenticity of that candidate and looking at their — at their record over time and what they fought for,” Santorum said. “And I think that’s a factor that should be determined.”

Bachmann may have been the surprise performer, given this was her first presidential debate and she arrived with many questions about her candidacy. She delivered a strongly conservative message, on issues from the debt ceiling to health care. She also showed people skills in her responses to voters who put questions to the candidates and occasional flashes of humor during the often-tedious discussion.

Defending the tea party to a Republican voter worried that some of the candidates would lean too far in the direction of the most conservative elements of the party, she said, “It’s a wide swath of America coming together. I think that’s why the left fears it so much, because they’re people who simply want to take the country back. They want the country to work again.”

Pawlenty had strong moments, particularly in an answer about the separation of church and state: “The Founding Fathers understood that the blessings that we have as a nation come from our creator, and we should stop and say thank you and express gratitude for that. And I embrace it.”

But his performance is likely to be remembered for what he didn’t say to Romney.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich — whose senior campaign staff quit last week, leaving his candidacy in an even weaker position — held his own, as he needed to do. If at times he sounded more like a legislator than a president, he nonetheless delivered at times crisp answers and sharp attacks on Obama.

Businessman Herman Cain, whose performance in the first GOP debate brought him widespread praise from conservatives and a boost in his poll numbers, had a more mixed performance Monday. His most memorable answer came when he tried to explain why he would be reluctant to appoint Muslims to his administration if he were president.

“The statement was, would I be comfortable with a Muslim in my administration, not that I wouldn’t appoint one,” he said. “That’s the exact transcript. And I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us. And so when I said I wouldn’t be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones that are trying to kill us.”

Romney distanced himself from Cain’s answer, but when Gingrich’s turn came, the former speaker he said, “Now, I just want to go out on a limb here. I am in favor of saying to people, if you’re not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.”

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had a better debate than he did in South Carolina last month, if only because he did not stray into discussion of the legalization of heroin. He articulated his libertarian philosophy, which has some following in New Hampshire.

Romney jumped on Obama from beginning to end. “This president has failed. And he’s failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy going,” he said.

But he also had moments where he appeared to be on the defensive, particularly when asked about his past statements that, if the government bailed out the auto industry, the industry would disappear.

Confronted with the reality of an industry on the rebound, Romney insisted that his original position — to force the auto companies to go through the bankruptcy process — is ultimately the course pursued by the administration. “The bailout program was not a success because the bailout program wasted a lot of money,” he said.

Voters in Michigan — and elsewhere — may disagree.

Romney will be asked about this and health care and where he truly stands on other issues with greater intensity in the future. For one night, however, he was able to keep control of a debate and avoid the kind of clashes and potentially difficult moments that will be coming soon.

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