CNN's solid political host John King was game to keep Monday night's Republican presidential debate moving, but speed and thoroughness don't go together, especially in a discussion overflowing with seven candidates.
That meant the would-be GOP nominees got away with a fair amount of bobbing and weaving in one of their first mass debates. Mitt Romney wouldn't directly say whether he would raise the federal debt ceiling. Michele Bachmann punted on whether her anti-abortion stand would apply to victims of rape and incest. Ron Paul wouldn't say whether a 5-year-old illegal immigrant child should receive medical care at an emergency room. And Newt Gingrich backed what sounded like loyalty tests for Muslims who would want to enter his presidential administration, without any serious follow-up.
Whether it was the large size of the field or the desire to speed through many topics, the candidates mostly had it their own way Monday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
King can't carry all the responsibility for the lack of accountability in the two-hour debate. Even when the CNN host pushed for a little combativeness, the candidates wouldn't take the bait, at least against each other.
Most noticeable for a lack of inter-party aggression was former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who declined to repeat his early challenge to Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan. Pawlenty would only acknowledge that he compared Romney's plan, crafted when he was governor of Massachusetts, with President Obama's plan because Obama had said he modeled his legislation on the Massachusetts health law. On the weekend talk show circuit, Pawlenty had belittled "Obamney Care," since both the Massachusetts plan and the national healthcare reform require individuals to purchase insurance, a "mandate" vehemently opposed by most Republicans.
All the fire on Monday night remained on President Obama.
The next debate hosts might also want to rethink the notion of informal time limits. King tried to keep the discussion moving without a set limit. That meant he spent much of his time burbling "all right, all right, all right," under the GOP hopefuls as they went well past the parsimonious 30-second response time.
Better to bring back the red warning light for the next debate--and a more generous time limit.
CNN tried to lighten the serious subject matter with a "this or that" feature, as the cable outlet cut into, and away from, commercials. King asked the candidates about such lite preferences as Coke vs. Pepsi, thin crust vs. deep dish pizza, Johnny Cash vs. Elvis Presley and Blackberry vs. iPhone.
That produced little spark and less insight. If you're going to insist on bringing a pop culture or lite sensibility to the proceedings, at least challenge these pols. A few more challenging choices: LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki? Bourbon or scotch? Craps or blackjack? Iowa or New Hampshire?
That last one would really make frontrunner Romney squirm.
Photo: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, talks to CNN's John King, as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), right, joins in during the first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Credit: Jim Cole / Associated Press