MANCHESTER, N.H. —Mitt Romney tried hard to stay above the Republican debate battle, Tim Pawlenty tried mightily to boost his stature and Michele Bachmann came on strong.
Everyone else at Monday night's GOP candidate debate scrambled to stand out in the crowded field.
The first debate of the 2012 presidential cycle lacked the kind of barbs and bile these affairs usually generate. Romney, the clear New Hampshire poll front-runner, didn't get challenged hard on health care and abortion, two areas where critics say he's changed his views over the years.
As governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law a near-universal health care plan considered a model for the 2010 federal health law championed by President Obama.
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Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, is seeking the same mainstream Republican voter — as well as independents — as Romney.
Pressed to repeat his charge a day earlier that the two plans were "Obamneycare," Pawlenty wouldn't confront Romney. When pushed, he said he used the term because Obama compared his health care plan to Romney's.
"Using the term 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan," Pawlenty said.
Romney was only gently challenged on abortion. When he ran for governor in 2002, he left abortion rights groups convinced he'd protect such rights. He has said that while he has always opposed abortion personally, he backed Massachusetts' voters' right to set their own legal standard.
Monday, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a longtime abortion opponent, said voters should note the "authenticity of a candidate" on such an issue.
Romney countered that he's "firmly pro-life." No one else challenged him.
The two-hour debate offered little drama, other than an announcement by Bachmann, a three-term Minnesota congresswoman, that she has taken the formal steps to become a presidential candidate. She'll become the only woman in the race; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hasn't said whether she'll run.
The debate had several story lines.
Foremost was the effort by Romney and Pawlenty, who have appeal to the kinds of independent voters who can help win general elections, to remain statesmanlike and stay away from appearing extreme.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also was closely watched. His campaign nearly imploded last week as his top staff abruptly quit, saying he was not putting in the time or effort needed for a presidential run.
Gingrich stirred the ire of conservatives recently when he called House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan to dramatically revamp Medicare "right-wing social engineering." Monday, he said there are "certain things I'd do different" than Ryan.
The debate also was a battle between four more conservative candidates vying to become the favorite of the GOP's right wing. Scrapping for that mantle were Bachmann, Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and, to some degree, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
The candidates largely agreed on two points: Obama has presided over an economic disaster, and the 2010 health care law championed by Democrats is a mess.