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First debate overview: A bunch of GOP colleagues get together to criticize President Obama

June 14, 2011 |  3:02 am

GOP New Hampshire Debate CNN Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich, Romney, Paul, Pawlenty, Cain 6-13-11

President Obama was the big loser in Monday night's New Hampshire Republican debate, the first with the frontrunner.

Obama, of course, wasn't there. The Democrat and his wife were on opposite sides of the country doing -- guess what? -- a packet of political fundraisers. She was in Los Angeles rounding up Hollywood cash and he was in Miami for a trio of moola events, en route to another fundraiser in Puerto Rico today.

In New Hampshire the existing field of seven Republicans had different missions going into the 120-minute rhetorical tussle. There was a bothersome hectic air about the show. Being TV, host John King was constantly stressing time, time, time, as if there weren't 14 months until the convention and 512 days until the 2012 election. And who cares if Anderson Cooper's show starts late?

So the candidates had a whole 60 seconds to explain various stands plus 30-second responses. Any depth was accidental. (The full two-hour transcript is available here. Good luck with that.)

For Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, it was....

...a chance to introduce themselves to a national TV audience, or at least those Americans choosing to watch a low-rated cable news channel on a summer evening when they'll have interminable opportunities to watch/read/listen more later, when others like Jon Huntsman may join in.

Bachmann took the opportunity to basically announce her candidacy and, in case you missed it all three times she said it, the Minnesota representative is a former tax litigation attorney, who has given birth to five children and raised 23 foster children in her home.

Pawlenty, who's new to this league, looked sincere but less comfortable than he will down the road. Ron Paul was, well, Ron Paul, no doubt delighting libertarian fans with his black-and-white stands against overseas military bases, for instance. Fact is, the entire Republican field has moved in his direction in some areas like the overpowering size of the federal government now.

Mitt Romney kisses wife Ann after the GOP debate in New Hampshire 6-13-11Newt Gingrich, trying to relaunch his stumbling campaign, was sharp, pointed and surprisingly brief for a former speaker; it served him well. He drew applause a few times, as did Pawlenty and Paul.

Romney's ridden this circuit before and looked the most poised and presidential, even plopped in center stage. And he got a good chance to differentiate his Massachusetts health care plan from what the GOP calls Obamacare.

There were some fluffs. Romney caught himself starting to talk about supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Paul seemed to imply that Iraq and Afghanistan share a border. And Gingrich dropped the word million when describing 20 illegal immigrants.

One striking sense from this initial encounter is how distinctly more conservative is the tone this time over 2007-08, especially in matters fiscal.

Although a new Gallup Poll reveals that Republicans are more interested this time in picking a winner than in finding an ideal ideological soulmate.

However, instead of the much-hyped targeting of frontrunner Romney by the trailing pack of ambitious sharpshooters, GOP collegiality ruled. The new guy Pawlenty even declined to confront Romney over what he has termed 'Obamneycare' elsewhere.

Probably wise moves by all on this first practice outing. They all agreed any of them would be better than the current guy. There'll be plenty of time for pecking to death later. Although Republicans not nattering at each other does not fit the unchallenged Obama's playbook of looking serenely presidential while these GOP nobodies squabble.  

The Republicans were also united on life beginning at conception and ending with natural death and on the economic failures of Obama, his serial lack of leadership on jobs, spending cuts and the deficit/debt and his overreaching drive to extend federal powers with a belief that Washington knows best.

Predictably, the avuncular, 76-year-old Paul was against all foreign U.S. military involvement, said he'd stop bombing just about everywhere as it's not making us any friends, as if the explosives are targeted at pals. Santorum noted some foreign involvement was necessary to create more security at home.

For his first two years Obama has received strong support from Republicans for his Afghan military actions (including two troop surges), which began under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.

But that support could be crumbling among the GOP's 2012 competitors. Obama's unprovoked attacks on Libya and inability to define a clear U.S. national interest there drew criticism from Bachmann, among others.

And while Romney did talk about a national security interest in denying al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, he may have signaled an approaching sea change by firmly noting that American troops can't be fighting revolutions for other countries.

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-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: CNN; Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images.

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