MANCHESTER, N.H. — Those expecting a Mitt Romney feeding frenzy didn’t get one.
If the Republicans on stage with the former governor of Massachusetts were smelling blood at Romney’s first debate of the 2012 cycle, they didn’t go for his jugular over RomneyCare.
The six other candidates had plenty of chances to nail Romney here at St. Anselm College, but they instead saved their energy for President Obama.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been working to establish himself as the Romney alternative, had signaled this weekend that he was going to step up his rhetoric against Romney when he called President Obama’s health-care law “Obamaneycare.” That’s a reference to the similarities between health-care legislation signed under both Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, and Obama last year.
But Pawlenty backed away Monday night — refusing to double-down in the debate what he said about Romney on Fox News Sunday.
“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,” he said. “And so using the term ‘Obamneycare’ was a reflection of the president’s comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.”
So how does he get ahead with out making distinctions between him and Romney?
Speaking with reporters after the debate, Pawlenty’s campaign manager, Nick Ayers, said the governor was focused on speaking about his own economic plan.
“Look, I understand, it’s CNN. It’s always good for ratings if you can get some back and forth. But the governor restated that it’s a blueprint for Obamacare and he stands by that,” he said.
Romney, who stood at the lectern at the center of the debate stage, in turn refused to criticize Pawlenty on the numbers of his goal to grow the economy by 5 percent.
“Look, Tim has the right instincts, which is he recognizes that what this president has done has slowed the economy,” he said.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose campaign is shambles as most of his top aides resigned last week, turned his attention toward the growing size of government, and blasted NASA for showing “why government can’t innovate.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who announced a run for president during the debate, didn’t attack Romney directly, but said her first goal as president would be to repeal Obamacare.
Others who participated in the debate included businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Over the last several days, Pawlenty, Santorum, Huntsman and Cain have been campaigning in the Granite State, which holds the first primary in the country. Pawlenty has hit taverns, bowling alleys and a prosthetic business during the swing through the state.
“I don’t think contrasting policy differences between candidates is out of bounds in a debate,” Pawlenty told reporters earlier on Monday. “The American people want to know what do you stand for, what do you believe.”
Romney is scheduled to spend Tuesday in Manchester and Derry, campaigning at local businesses.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is contemplating a run, did not participate in the debate. Neither did Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, two others said to be contemplating a bid for the White House.