GOP New Hampshire Debate: A Remarkably Friendly Affair

GOP New Hampshire Debate: A Remarkably Friendly Affair

By Carl M. Cannon - June 14, 2011

Now that was more like it. Seven Republican presidential candidates showed up Monday night to debate one another at New Hampshire's Saint Anselm College, where they looked -- if not entirely presidential -- then at least poised, collegial and in command of their talking points. 

All seven managed to express their differences on public policy without being uncivil to one another, or even disagreeing directly with their fellow candidates. This was made easier by the their shared antipathy for the Obama administration -- and because their differences are pretty nuanced: In case there was any remaining doubt, Monday's session underscored just how conservative the modern Republican Party has become, whether one hails from Ron Paul's libertarian wing, Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus, or the mainstream establishment of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

The 2012 GOP field has come in for its share of criticism by pundits and political professionals for presumably comprising a weak cast of characters, and one of the debate questioners pointedly asked pizza magnate and talk radio show host turned presidential candidate Herman Cain about surveys showing that many Americans share this skepticism.

"A lot of the people don't know us yet," replied Cain, the only candidate who has never held elected office. "So as people get to know us more and more I think they're going to find that really is a good field of candidates. . . . The people who know the most about everybody up here don't see this as a weak field -- and neither do I."

Near the end of the two-hour debate, moderator John King of CNN asked Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, who he believed had made the better vice presidential selection in 2008, John McCain or Barack Obama. Momentarily caught off guard, Pawlenty laughed, but then provided a trenchant criticism of Joe Biden ("He's wrong on everything!") and spirited support for Sarah Palin.

"I think Governor Palin is a remarkable leader," Pawlenty responded. "I think she's qualified to be president of the United States. I think she's equally as qualified to -- or more qualified -- and would have been a stronger president than Joe Biden."

At this point, Mitt Romney, the leader in all the early polling in New Hampshire, chimed in. "John, any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama. He has failed on Job One, which was to get this economy going again. He failed on Job Two, which was to restrain the growth of government. And he failed on Job Three, which was to have a coherent, consistent foreign policy." Romney's assessment pretty much summed up the stance taken by all seven candidates, which is to be expected from the out-of-power party.

If there was a surprise, it was the deference Romney received from the other candidates. The front-runner often bears the brunt of attacks from other candidates, and four years ago -- even when he wasn't leading the polls -- Romney was particularly singled out for criticism by Republican rivals who did little to hide that they just didn't like him very much.

Maybe Romney has mellowed in four years, or perhaps this crop of Republicans is just a more accommodating crew, but if they are harboring any particular resentment for the handsome and rich former governor of Massachusetts they did a pretty good job of hiding it Monday night. When former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was asked about the auto bailout, he prefaced his reply by saying, "Governor Romney is right."

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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