Seven Republican presidential hopefuls stand onstage before their first debate Monday, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. From left are former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and businessman Herman Cain.
The field of GOP presidential contenders appeared onstage for their first major debate in New Hampshire, taking aim at President Obama, criticizing his handling of the economy and vowing to repeal his health care overhaul.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner, set the tone for Monday night's debate by explaining that any of the Republican contenders present "would be a better president than President Obama."
Obama, he said, "has failed at job one, which is to get the economy going again. He failed at job two, which is to restrain the size of government, and he failed at job three, which is to have a consistent foreign policy," Romney said.
The New Hampshire event took place more than six months before the state plays host to the first primary of the 2012 campaign.
The seven candidates were so careful not to turn their rhetorical firepower against one another that Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, backed away from an attack he had launched just a day before on Romney, coining the term "Obamneycare" to conflate Romney's Massachusetts health care law with the Obama's national health care law.
Debate moderator John King of CNN pressed Pawlenty three times to explain the term.
Pawlenty finally offered up that he was simply quoting Obama as saying that he looked to Massachusetts while crafting the national program.
"He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the program,"Pawlenty explained. "So, calling it Obamneycare was a reflection of the president's comments."
Most of the debate, however, focused on the economy, which has undergone its worst downturn since the Great Depression and continues to dog the Obama administration.
Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain used what may have been the most colorful analogy of the evening to make a point.
"This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine," he said. "And this administration has simply been putting all of the money in the caboose. We need an engine called the private sector."
The typically verbose Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a leading figure in the Tea Party movement, was stumped when the moderator asked whether Obama had "done one thing right when it comes to the economy."
"Boy, that's a tough question. No, no, I can't think of anything," Paul said.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann made a mark in the first 10 minutes by announcing she was officially in the race, saying she had filed her paperwork the very day of the debate.
She reminded the audience that she led the House Tea Party caucus, but she tried to burnish her foreign policy credentials by discussing Libya.
"I sit on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. We deal with the country's vital national secrets. We, to this day, do not know who the rebel forces are that we're helping," she said.
While Bachmann tried to reach beyond social issues, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum made an overt pitch to the social conservatives around whom he has built his career.
"Not only have I been consistently pro-life; I've not just taken the pledge — I've taken the bullets," Santorum said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, hoping the debate would resuscitate his ailing campaign, damaged by a mass defection of his senior staff last week, tried again to explain why he once described House Republicans' Medicare plan as "right-wing social engineering."
"If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you'd better slow down," Gingrich said.
Instead, Gingrich, like the others, preferred to lay into the president's handling of the economy.
"When 14 million Americans are out of work, we need a new president to end the Obama Depression," he declared.
Pundits have been writing Gingrich off, but most voters are not yet focused on 2012.
One of the biggest applause lines of the night came from Romney, who gave the score from the Stanley Cup hockey finals just after a commercial break.
"And by the way — Bruins are up 4-0," he said to huge cheers.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was not present — her plans on whether to run are still up in the air.
Several other likely candidates have decided not to run, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. But at least one who ruled out a race is reconsidering. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he will decide after the state Legislature completes its current session.