Mitt Romney easily survived his first debate of the 2012 primary with barely a nick to his early front-runner status.
Tarred as a flip-flopping phony during his 2008 White House bid, Romney looked at ease during the two-hour live forum, and none of his lesser-known rivals made him squirm. Eager to make pleasing first impressions on a national audience, they all passed when handed opportunities to attack Romney.
(PICTURES: Meet the 2012 presidential hopefuls)
A picture of the former Massachusetts governor and corporate executive in an open-collared shirt and tie—posted on Twitter just minutes before the debate in an obvious attempt at campaign image-making—rang true. Romney came off as relaxed and self-assured during his first big opportunity to reintroduce himself to voters.
Romney was pointed in his criticism of President Obama and gracious to his rivals, saying any of them would make a better chief executive than the current occupant of the White House. He stood by his withering criticism of the federal bailout of the Michigan-based auto industry in the state where he was born and where his father was governor. He easily found opportunities to talk about his experience in the private sector and to lash out at the GOP’s favorite whipping post, the federal deficit.
One of Romney's leading rivals, Tim Pawlenty, demurred when CNN moderator John King pressed him to explain his widely accepted criticism linking the health care laws signed by President Obama and by Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. Just one day after Pawlenty coined “Obamneycare,’’ he practically suggested the president was the one who had made up the phrase.
Romney approached one of his biggest potential liabilities in the GOP primary with confidence. “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?' " he asked. “And I would have told you, 'Mr. President, that what you're doing will not work.' "
That Romney’s rivals chose not to confront him wasn’t surprising, given that they are just introducing themselves to voters at this early stage of the campaign. Romney won’t get off as easily in debates to come.
But Romney demonstrated Monday that whatever his baggage, he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Neither should Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman whose bid faces deep skepticism from the political establishment.
What the only woman on stage lacked in height she made up for with enthusiasm, declaring in front of her rivals that she had filed the official paperwork as a presidential candidate on Monday. She seized openings and one-upped her more slow-footed and less self-assured rivals. While they all want to repeal Obama’s health care plan, Bachmann declared, "I will not rest until I repeal 'Obamacare.' "
Her sparkly performance overshadowed Pawlenty, her fellow Minnesotan who is viewed as a more serious contender, and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, whose oratorical skills won him praise in a May 5 debate skipped by Bachmann and Romney.
Rick Santorum, who has previously not pulled punches when it comes to criticizing his rivals, decided to toot his own horn rather than rail against Romney’s inconsistencies. He also declined to take on Pawlenty’s goals for economic growth that have been panned as unrealistic.
Newt Gingrich did little to redeem himself after the stunning abandonment by his campaign leadership last week. In fact, he revived the criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed Medicare overhaul that alienated him from leaders in his own party after he launched his campaign one month ago.
“If you can't convince the American people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea,’’ Gingrich said, in a line that’s certain to raise the ire of Ryan supporters again.
And when he proudly noted that he participated in the economic recovery under former President Reagan, he undermined his own effort to come across as a fresh candidate brimming with new ideas.
Pawlenty has grown more confident as a candidate in recent weeks, but Monday he showed he’s still honing his debate chops. Perhaps his best line of the night was one he's used frequently before in candidate forums. Asked about the “separation of church and state,” he said the U.S. Constitution was “designed to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith."
Unlike Gingrich, he manged to distance himself more gracefully from Ryan’s proposal, a tough sell to voters uneasy about Medicare cuts. Pawlenty said he agreed with Ryan but said his own plan would include an option to keep Medicare. “We should keep our word to the people we made promises to," he said.
The best moment for Cain, the only candidate who has never served in public office, was when he gleefully proclaimed at the start of the debate, “I am not a politician." As a result, he lacks a voting record to be picked over. But he was grilled about his public support for the federal government’s bailout of Wall Street, which was unpopular with fiscally conservative tea party activists. He also scrambled to explain a previous remark in which he said he would feel uncomfortable with a Muslim in his administration.
Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who has run for president before, did little to shake his image as a fringe candidate by talking too fast and dropping obscure subjects like “Keynesian bubble" and “monetary policy" into the conversation.