MANCHESTER, N.H.—Presumed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney came through Monday night's presidential debate unscathed—with one exception. The man most see as Romney's chief rival, Tim Pawlenty, did land one punch against the health care bill that Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts, which conservative critics say was the precursor to President Obama's health care legislation.
"In order to prosecute the case against the president, you have to show you have a different plan and a better plan," Pawlenty said. But despite the criticism, he declined to repeat the term he coined Sunday, "Obamneycare," even as debate host John King prodded him to do so.
That lone barb was the extent of the criticism that faced Romney on Monday, in a debate that outlined the candidates' position on a wide range of social, economic, and fiscal issues. The most newsworthy item: Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., formally declared she is running for president, using the national stage in a highly unusual setting for the announcement.
Romney's most notable answer might have come when he was asked about Afghanistan, when he said he wants troops withdrawn "not based on politics, not based on economics, but based on the conditions on the ground." The ex-governor added that the nation has learned it can't fight another "war of independence" for other countries.
The candidates weren't unified on every question, but they were usually close. Of the seven candidates on stage, only Herman Cain and Ron Paul dissented when asked if they would reinstate "don't ask, don't tell." President Obama has ordered repeal of the controversial policy barring gays from serving openly in the military. Cain and Paul were again the only candidates who said they'd leave the decision to the states when asked if there should be a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz issued a statement moments after the debate, accusing the GOP candidates of wanting to return to the policies enacted under former president George W. Bush.
"The economic recession in America wasn’t caused by bad luck," the Florida congresswoman said. "It was caused by bad Republican policies."
Here's our live-blog of the debate.
9:55 p.m. Pawlenty gave an unequivocal endorsement of Sarah Palin, saying the former governor of Alaska would make a much better president than current Vice President Joe Biden. "Governor Palin is a remarkable leader, and is qualified to be the president of the United States," he said.
9:50 p.m. Santorum criticized “America’s fecklessness in dealing with the threats that confront us.” He said the United States needs to “engage our allies and have our allies know we have their back. The president has not done that. …our enemies no longer respect us, our friends no longer trust us.”
9:48 p.m. Gingrich blasted the American intelligence community for what he calls a lack of information in Libya, saying it necessitates an entirely new strategy in the region. "Ten years after 9/11, our intelligence is so inadequate, we have no idea how many Libyan rebels are in fact al-Qaeda," he said.
9:43 p.m. Paul said he did “not quite” agree with Romney’s statement that he would bring home American troops if generals on the ground in Afghanistan said it was time to do so. “I wouldn’t wait for my generals,” Paul said. “I’m the commander-in-chief, I tell the generals what to do, and I bring them home as quickly as possible. …We should learn the lessons of history, and the longer we’re there, the worse things are…our presence there is not making friends, let me tell you.”
9:42 p.m. Asked about Afghanistan, Romney ostensibliy rejected using the cost of the war as a reason to withdraw troops. "I want those troops to come home not based on politics, not based on economics, but based on the conditions on the ground," he said. But the ex-governor added that only Afghanistan's native citizens can "win the country's independence" from the Taliban.
9:37 p.m. Iowa alert: Santorum said he supports phasing out ethanol subsidies over the course of five years. The industry has come a long way in recent years, he said. "They are actually capable of surviving, doing quite well, going on their own."
9:35 p.m. During an exchange on immigration, Gingrich says that the Congress is “never going to pass a comprehensive bill” and insists that the choice between expelling the millions of immigrants now in the country and giving them all citizenship is a false one. “There are humane, practical solutions to this problem” he says, but does not elaborate.
9:27 p.m. Pawlenty: “I am solidly pro-life…and I haven’t just talked about these things. I’ve done it.”
9:25 p.m. Most of the candidates said they would work to reinstate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays from serving openly in the military -- except, again, Cain and Paul. But Romney left a little wiggle room to allow gays to serve later on. "I believe don't ask, don't tell should be kept in place until the conflict is over," he said.
9:22 p.m. Asked if anti-gay marriage legislation should be a state decision or should be a Constitutional amendment, all candidates except Cain and Paul said it should be left to a Constitutional amendment. Bachmann reiterated, however, she would not campaign in any state to overturn their law.
9:19 p.m. Bachmann drew applause when she said it is not “the role of the president” to go into the states to repeal laws like the one in New Hampshire allowing gays to marry.
9:17 p.m. Romney, at times criticized for being mechanical, boring or aloof, says he definitely prefers spicy wings, and “by the way, Bruins are up 4-0.”
9:11 p.m. Romney, in response to Cain’s statement that he is against Sharia law entering the American justice system: “Of course we’re not going to have Sharia law in U.S. courts…we have a constitution.” Romney added, “Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.”
9:10 p.m. Cain defended himself against earlier remarks that he would not appoint a Muslim to his administration, reiterating that although he might give a Muslim a job, he's not necessarily comfortable with the religious group. "I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims, and you have militant muslims, those who are trying to kills us," Cain said. He also said he would oppose any attempts to impose Sharia law in the country.
9:06 p.m. Pawlenty just gave a standard Republican response when asked about the separation of church and state in the Constitution. "The protections were designed to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith."
9:05 p.m. Bachmann used Obama’s words against him on the debt limit, saying she won’t vote to increase it and that the president has shown a “failure of leadership” – a phrase then-Sen. Obama used when he voted against an increase under President George W. Bush in 2006.
8:57 p.m. Gingrich, prodded on his reversal on Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal -- which he initially likened to “radical social engineering” before walking back his comments – said his “words were taken entirely out of context.” He added, though, “If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea.” Gingrich suggested $720 billion can be saved annually by eliminating fraud in Medicare.
8:56 p.m. Pawlenty said his plan to reform Medicare "will let Medicare continue as an option," a difference from the budget offered Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
8:51 p.m. Gingrich was just asked whether he prefers American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. "American Idol," he responded, without hesitation.
8:50 p.m. Romney just gave Republican voters a little red meat when asked what government programs should be cut. The question isn't what programs should be cut, he said, it's what programs should be kept. "We cannot afford to do those thing without joeopardizing the future for our kids," Romney said. "It is simply immoral in my view to rack up larger and lrager debts for our kids."
8:47 p.m. Pawlenty said the country's ailing housing market is a result of "micromanaging" politicians who intervened. "They created the bubble, they created the mess," said Pawlenty.
8:45 p.m. Gingrich says “we’re not a developed country.”
8:38 p.m. Cain defended his support of TARP, acknowledging he supported the program at first but quickly backed off when its role expanded. "Government should not be selecting winners and losers, and I don’t believe in this concept of 'too big to fail.'"
8:37 p.m. Applause line: Paul says, “It’s a fallacy to think that government, politicians and bureaucrats are smart enough” to control the economy through subsidies to private enterprise.
8:30 p.m. In response to a question about right-to-work laws and unions, Pawlenty answered: “People shouldn’t be forced to be in a member of any party,” adding as the audience applauded, “I support strongly right-to-work legislation.”
8:28 p.m. Bachmann said Republicans need to pass the “mother-of-all repeal bills”—starting with the Environmental Protection Agency. "There’s no other agency like the EPA – it should be renamed job-killing organization of America”
8:22 p.m. Bachmann, in response to a question from the same New Hampshire voter concerned about the pull of both the tea party and libertarians on the Republican Party, says that the tea party comprises a “wide swath of America coming together,” not a politically radical minority. “I think that’s why the left fears it so much,” she said.
8:20 p.m. Santorum, addressing a voter who asked about candidates’ ability to appeal to the mainstream to win the general election: “I drafted the Contract with America welfare reform bill.… I got 70 votes to end a federal entitlement.… And I led, I got the bipartisan support.”
8:16 p.m. Pawlenty and Romney just exchanged the debate's first fireworks. Romney, seeking to differentiate his health care plan from Obama's, said the president's bill raised taxes, increased spending and raided Medicare. But asked to respond to Romney, Pawlenty suggested his health care plan will hamstring him in a matchup with the president. "In order to prosecute the case against the president, you have to show you have a different plan and a better plan," the ex-Minnesota governor said. He declined, however, to repeat the term he coined Sunday, referring to Romney's plan as "Obamneycare."
8:14 p.m. Bachmann: “I was the very first member of Congress to introduce the full repeal of Obamacare … This is the symbol and the signature issue of President Obama during his entire tenure…This is a job-killer…What could the president be thinking by passing a bill like this, knowing full well it could kill 800,000 jobs?"
8:11 p.m. Bachmann formally announces, live and on stage, that she's running for president.