U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann’s scene-stealing debut and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s gaffe-free debate performance boosted their candidacies for the Republican presidential nomination in ways that could reshuffle the race, party strategists and activists said yesterday.
Romney, who came to the June 13 debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, as the front-runner in several public opinion polls, did nothing to undermine his position and benefited from a reluctance among the six other participants to attack him. Bachmann, who made news at the start of the event by making her candidacy official, proceeded to set herself apart as a contender on Romney’s right flank, willing to take on establishment Republicans as well as President Barack Obama.
Her emergence could spell trouble for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is trying to style himself as the conservative alternative to Romney. He came out of the two-hour debate with poor grades from analysts, in part because he repeatedly declined to reprise a derogatory term he coined over the weekend to criticize Romney’s record on health care.
“Bachmann and Romney helped themselves the most last night,” Fergus Cullen, a consultant and former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said yesterday. Others merely “treaded water,” while Pawlenty may have harmed himself with what Cullen called “the whiff.”
In a June 12 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Pawlenty coined the word “Obamneycare” as a way to tie the Massachusetts health-care measure Romney helped to enact in 2006 with the federal law Obama pushed through Congress last year. During the debate, even when invited several times to directly criticize Romney on the issue, he steered clear of the term, asserting that the comment was merely meant to note that Obama has said he looked to the Massachusetts statute as a model.
“It was not the ‘I’m paying for this microphone,’ take- charge sort of moment that suggests strength, so that was surprising. It was a missed opportunity,” Cullen said, referring to a galvanizing moment in the 1980 New Hampshire Republican primary campaign when Ronald Reagan sparred with a debate moderator.
Pawlenty now must compete in a “very risky” contest with Bachmann, Cullen said, in a sort of “primary within a primary” to emerge as Romney’s principal challenger. That dynamic is likely to shape an August straw poll of Republicans in Iowa that Romney has said he plans to skip.
Romney, casting himself as a national candidate during his second presidential run, also escaped the debate without direct criticism on an issue that had plagued him in his 2008 campaign -- his changed position on abortion rights.
He supported abortion rights during his failed 1994 bid to unseat Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, and has since said that he has a different view.
“I believe people understand that I’m firmly pro-life,” Romney said during the debate. The other candidates took him at his word, declaring the “case closed” on the issue.
Romney has “been consistently the front-runner in our polling, and nobody laid a glove on him -- nobody even went after him,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Andrew Smith. Pawlenty, he added, raised questions about his readiness for the presidency in seeming to back away from his “Obamneycare” critique.
“If you’re going to go after one of your fellow candidates publicly like he did with that comment, you have to be able to stand behind it,” Smith said. “Otherwise you look weak, and he came out looking weak.”
Pawlenty made the rounds of television news shows yesterday to defend his performance, denying that he had missed a chance to draw a contrast with Romney.
“The bottom line is, when you are running against the president of the United States, you’re going to have to distinguish yourself, your plans and your ideas. I’m going to be able to do that because I took a different direction in Minnesota,” Pawlenty said on the Fox News Channel. “But there wasn’t a difference between what I said on Sunday and what I said last night.”
Romney, campaigning in Derry, New Hampshire, where he pressed his economic argument against Obama, said all the Republicans did well at the forum, appropriately pulling their punches toward each other to focus on the current White House occupant.
Everyone Was ‘Lifted’
“We were respectful of one another and we aimed our rhetoric at the president, where it was deserved,” he told reporters outside a feed and supply shop. “I thought everybody was actually lifted a bit by the experience.”
Asked specifically about Bachmann, Romney said, “I thought she did a very nice job.”
At a lunch gathering among Republicans yesterday in Manchester, the talk was mostly about the Minnesota congresswoman, who cut a distinct figure on stage, said Jeffrey Frost, the city’s party chairman.
“Just about everybody thought that Michele Bachmann got the most mileage out of it,” he said. “She handled herself well; she announced on the stage, which was pretty dramatic; she came across to a lot of people as ‘this is somebody who has ability to do well.’”
Romney “didn’t hurt himself,” said Frost, adding that while Pawlenty could have dealt with the “Obamneycare” question better, overall “he handled himself well.”
Most voters have yet to focus on the candidates, and the televised debate wasn’t likely to change that.
“The voters aren’t paying much attention yet. They’re not likely to really focus on who they’re actually going to support for another five or six months,” Smith said. Yet the debate was “important in that it introduced the candidates to people around the country who are starting to form impressions, and those first impressions can be important in shaping the race,” he said.
Some candidates notable for their absence from the debate could change those contours in the days to come. Just hours after the gathering ended, Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and Obama administration envoy to China, said he would announce his presidential bid June 21.
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