Romney escapes GOP debate unscathed

Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannGillibrand becomes latest candidate scrutinized for how she eats on campaign trail Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents Yes, condemn Roseanne, but ignoring others is true hypocrisy MORE (R-Minn.) stole the early spotlight in Monday's Republican presidential debate, but it was front-runner Mitt Romney who escaped the evening unscathed.

Bachmann grabbed headlines early in the evening by saying she had filed the paperwork to run for the 2012 GOP nomination.

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"I filed today my paperwork to run for president of the United States … I wanted you to be the first to know," she said. She added she would make a formal announcement at a later time.

But it was the former governor of Massachusetts, who leads in polling of the GOP field, who came out on top by the end of evening — mainly for what wasn't said about him.

Romney has been under attack from several of his Republican rivals for the Massachusetts healthcare plan he signed into law as governor. Conservatives are unhappy with the plan, which contains similarities to the controversial healthcare law signed by President Obama.

But those criticisms were missing Monday night, particularly from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who tried to tie Romney to Obama's healthcare law on Sunday by coining the phrase “ObamneyCare.”

Pawlenty backed off that criticism during the debate, despite being given plenty of opportunities to attack Romney.

He explained that he was simply citing Obama's own words when he came up with the term "ObamneyCare."

"The issue that was raised in a question from a reporter," he said, "I just cited President Obama's own words."

During an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," Pawlenty was asked if the individual mandate in Romney's plan is different from Obama's federal mandate.

He said: “You don’t have to take my word for, it you can take President Obama’s word for it. President Obama said that he designed ‘ObamaCare’ after ‘RomneyCare’ and basically made it ‘ObamneyCare.’ "

Moderator John King called out Pawlenty's behavior, noting he'd criticize Romney on a Sunday talk show but wouldn't do so when standing near him on a debate stage. Pawlenty didn't take the bait.

Romney, likewise, did not push back against Pawlenty. Instead, he took aim at Obama's healthcare law, pledging to repeal it and grant waivers to all 50 states the first day he takes office, should he be elected.

He also said Obama would regret thanking him for his "help" on the healthcare law.

"My guess is the president is going to eat those words and wish he didn't say them. I can't wait to debate him," Romney said.

Former Obama White House spokesman Bill Burton said that Pawlenty's response was weak.

"Romney weirdly winning on healthcare because of Pawlenty's weakness. Thats not MN nice, that's kid of [sic] pathetic," he tweeted.

Romney also vowed to repeal Obama's healthcare law.

"If I'm elected president I will repeal ObamaCare … and on my first day in office I'll grant a waiver for all 50 states," he said.

Bachmann, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, also vowed to repeal the plan.

And she got one of the biggest applause lines of the night when she said:  "Make no mistake about it, I want to announce it tonight: President Obama is a one-term president."

Several observers and pundits noted after the debate, which was freewheeling in style and bounced around from topic to topic and candidate to candidate, there was still an opening for another GOP contender.

"Tonight's debate also sends a loud message that there is a big opening for Rick Perry, Chris Christie or Jon Huntsman to jump into the race," said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

Huntsman did not participate in the debate but said over the weekend he'll make a 2012 announcement in the next week and a half. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has repeatedly said he's not interested in running, despite growing pleas from Republicans. Meanwhile, the buzz is building about Texas Gov. Perry, who is said to be considering a bid. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin turned down invitations to participate in the event, which took place in Manchester, N.H.

Ironically, it was businessman Herman Cain, once considered the weakest candidate but one who's garnered a lot of national attention in recent days, who defended the participants onstage.

"This is a strong field," he said when asked about concerns the field was too weak to beat Obama.

Democrats said the debate showed the differences between the GOP contenders and Obama, particularly on the economy, which is one of voters' top issues.

“The debate tonight put into stark relief the contrast between the Republican presidential candidates and President Obama. Republicans want to roll back the protections President Obama put in place to make sure another financial crisis of the magnitude we saw in 2008 could not happen again. President Obama is making the tough decisions to get our country going in the right direction," Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.

The early part of the evening did focus on the economy, and candidates nearly uniformly attacked Obama's policies.

"When 14 million Americans are out of work, we need a new president to end the Obama Depression," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said Obama pursued "oppressive policies" that hurt the economy.

The two-hour debate might become known for the questions it didn't ask, one of the most prominent concerning the implosion of Gingrich's campaign. He was not asked about the recent mass resignations by his top staff.

Also, there were only 20 minutes left in the debate when foreign-policy and national-security issues came up.

A father of a solider in Afghanistan asked the candidates when the troops would come home.

"It's time ... to bring our troops home as quickly as we possibly can," Romney said, adding that he would depend on the advice of generals.

But libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) countered: "I wouldn't wait for my generals. I'm the commander in chief. … I'd bring them home as quick as possible." He added that he would also take troops out of Iraq and stop the bombing in Libya.

Social issues dominated part of the evening as candidates discussed gay marriage, abortion and "Don't ask, don't tell."

Most of the candidates agreed there should be a constitutional amendment saying marriage should be between a man and a woman. All also reiterated their position against abortion rights. "I am firmly pro-life," said Romney, who has been accused of flip-flopping on the issue.

The final questions was on whom the candidates would pick as their vice presidential nominee.

"Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama," Romney said.

But it was Paul who got the laughs, saying he would need to question the contenders more before deciding and then bringing up his favorite issue, noting "they haven't told me how they feel about the Federal Reserve yet."


— Michael O'Brien, Jordan Fabian and Christian Heinze contributed.