Monday, June 13, 2011

7 in G.O.P. Square Off, 7 Months From First Vote

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Opening a new phase in a race that is unusually unsettled for a party once famous for its discipline, seven Republican presidential candidates met Monday night in their highest profile opportunity yet to begin drawing distinctions among themselves even as they united to press the attack against President Obama.
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The Caucus: Live Blogging the G.O.P. Debate in New Hampshire (June 13, 2011)
The Caucus: Fact Checking the Republican Debate (June 13, 2011)
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Jim Cole/Associated Press

Rep. Michele Bachmann answered a question as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, center, applauded while CNN's John King, left, looked on.

With the economy wavering and conservatives energized, Republicans see an opportunity to capitalize on the sense that the nation is on the wrong track. But with seven months remaining before the first votes of the nominating contest are cast, the candidates sought to show that they were both electable and ideologically acceptable to primary voters.

The spotlight was trained squarely on Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, whose appearance here amounted to his debut on the stage four years after losing his first bid for the party’s nomination. He sought to press his business credentials, arguing that he was the strongest nominee to promote a message of economic revival and job creation, but he worked to deflect conservative criticism over the state health care plan he signed that resembles the national one signed into law by Mr. Obama.

“First, if I’m elected president I will repeal Obamacare,” Mr. Romney said, acknowledging “some similarities and some big differences” between the Massachusetts and national plans. In a direct message to the president, he said: “If in fact you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call?”

Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who remains largely unknown to many Republicans across the country, highlighted his blue-collar roots as he sought to introduce himself as a leading alternative to Mr. Romney. He coined a new word a day before the debate — “Obamneycare” — a term aimed at criticizing both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama in a single breath.

But when the debate got under way, Mr. Pawlenty exhibited far more restraint and declined repeated attempts to explain the word or issue a face-to-face challenge to Mr. Romney. He joined other candidates throughout the evening in reserving the brunt of their criticism for Mr. Obama, rather than their fellow Republicans.

The debate, which unfolded over two hours on prime-time cable television, provided the biggest introduction — or reintroduction — for many of the candidates. But they largely kept a civil tone throughout their discussions, a sign of the early stage of the process, when candidates are reluctant to be seen as too negative as they make first impressions on voters.

Newt Gingrich, whose campaign imploded last week when virtually his entire senior strategy team resigned, did not mention the controversy. He exhibited a defensive tone from the outset of the debate, and at times lectured the debate moderator, John King of CNN, for how he characterized the responses.

Mr. Gingrich came into the debate facing continued criticism for appearing several weeks ago to speak against Representative Paul D. Ryan’s proposed budget plan that would convert Medicare into a voucher system allowing seniors to buy their insurance in the private market.

 Asked to address that criticism, Mr. Gingrich said his comments,to continue:

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