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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Last night's Republican presidential debate came in the state that holds the first primary. New Hampshire will vote at the start of the year. And New Hampshire voters got a closer look at the field of contenders who want to challenge President Obama.

MONTAGNE: There was no Donald Trump. There was no Sarah Palin, at least not now. Several candidates could still jump in, as we'll hear in a moment.

INSKEEP: But for now the contenders range from a former House speaker to a former Massachusetts governor who took on the role of frontrunner.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was at the debate.

ARI SHAPIRO: Even before the debate began, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney tried to project an air of control. Candidates were introduced one by one.

Romney gave protocol instructions to those who walked out on stage after him. Go down the line shaking everyone's hand, he said. When the applause stopped, Romney's voice was the first to break through.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): Got awful quiet in here.

SHAPIRO: After a few minutes, the audience stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance. There was some confusion about who would lead it, and once more Romney's voice rang out.

Mr. ROMNEY: I pledge allegiance to the flag...

SHAPIRO: Going into to this debate, some analysts said Romney's task was just not to mess up. After all, he has an early lead in polls. New Hampshire is his backyard, and he's more fiscal than social conservative - that ethos fits well with local attitudes here in the live free or die state. So Romney played the frontrunner last night, passing up many opportunities to attack his Republican rivals and aiming instead at the man in the oval office.

Mr. ROMNEY: Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama. He has...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ROMNEY: He has failed in job one, which was to get this economy going again. He failed in job two, which is to restrain the growth of government. And he failed in job three, which is to have a coherent, consistent foreign policy.

SHAPIRO: In fact, all the candidates in the debate tried to avoid a circular firing squad. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty even backed away from an attack that he had received national attention for one day earlier. On Sunday, Pawlenty coined the term Obamneycare to conflate Romney's Massachusetts health care law with the national health care law.

Last night, debate moderator John King of CNN asked about the term three times before Pawlenty finally answered the question.

Mr. JOHN KING (CNN): If it were Obamneycare on "Fox News Sunday," why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Republican Presidential Candidate): President Obama is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term Obamneycare was a reflection of the president's comments.

SHAPIRO: But most of the debate focused on the economy. Voters say it's their top concern.

Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain used what may have been the most colorful analogy to make a point the other candidates seem to agree with.

Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate): This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine, and the administration has simply been putting all of this money in the caboose. We need an engine called the private sector.

SHAPIRO: The typically verbose Texas congressman Ron Paul was stumped when John King asked this about Obama.

Mr. KING: Has he done one thing right when it comes to the economy in this country?

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Boy, that's a tough question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. PAUL: No. No. I can't think of anything.

SHAPIRO: For some of the candidates, last night's challenge was just to break into the public consciousness.

Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann made a mark in the first 10 minutes.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): I filed today my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the United States, today.

SHAPIRO: Bachmann reminded the audience that she chairs the House Tea Party Caucus. She is sometimes compared to Sarah Palin, who was not on the stage last night. Bachmann has built a reputation as a staunch social conservative, but last night she tried to show a broader range on issues, including Libya.

Rep. BACHMANN: I sit on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. We deal with the nation's vital classified secrets. We to this day don't yet know who the rebel forces are that we're helping.

SHAPIRO: While Bachmann tried to reach beyond social issues, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made an overt pitch to the social conservatives around whom he's built his career.

Mr. RICK SANTORUM (Republican Presidential Candidate): Not only have I been consistently pro-life, but I've taken the, you know, I've not just taken the pledge, I've taken the bullets.

SHAPIRO: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich strove to resuscitate his campaign last night. His senior staff quit all at once last week. Last night he also tried again to explain why he once described House Republicans' Medicare plan as right-wing social engineering.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Republican Presidential Candidate): 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 better slow down.

SHAPIRO: Pundits have been writing Gingrich off. But most voters are not yet focused on 2012 - even here in the first primary state of New Hampshire. One of the biggest applause lines of the night came from Romney, who gave the score from the Stanley Cup finals just after a commercial break.

Mr. ROMNEY: And by the way, Bruins are up four-zero.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

SHAPIRO: Just one more reason Romney spent most of the evening with a smile on his face.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire.

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