June 14, 2011— -- Republican presidential contenders kept their fire aimed squarely at President Obama at the first major debate of their primary season in Manchester, N.H., on Monday night, staying respectful of each other and keeping the focus on Democrats, the economy and repealing the new national health care reform law.
There were a few signs of discord on the stage, particularly on the U.S. role in Afghanistan. At one point, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that Muslims today should be treated like Nazis and Communists where it comes to serving the federal government.
But the Republican slate of candidates, meeting for the first time, seemed to agree with the frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when he said, "Anyone on the stage would be a better president than President Obama."
Romney took no direct hits from the rest of the pack during the wide-ranging two-hour debate, which should help him maintain his front-runner status.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, who entered the debate even though she was not yet formally running, announced that she filed paperwork with the FEC earlier in the day and is now officially a candidate.
Republican's First Goal: Repeal 'Obamacare'
Bachmann was one of the more engaging personalities on stage, and the Minnesota congresswoman started things off by pledging to repeal the health reform law -- "Obamacare."
"As president of the United States, I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare. It's a promise. Take it to the bank, cash the check. I'll make sure that that happens," she said to applause.
Gingrich, who is seeking to recast his candidacy after his staff quit last week, referred several times to "the Obama depression," which he said has beset the U.S. economy.
At one point the CNN moderator tried to get Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to engage Romney on health reform, and criticize him for signing into law in Massachusetts the health reform program that inspired the national plan Democrats passed in 2010. But Pawlenty passed, declining even to repeat the term 'ObamneyCare' that he had used on "Fox News Sunday."
That allowed Romney to deliver one of his favorite lines about the national health reform law -- that he wished President Obama had called him for advice.
After the debate, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum criticized Pawlenty, arguing he should either take back the term or apologize to Romney.
Each of the seven candidates on the stage pledged to work to repeal the Democrats' health law, which they said is too cumbersome for business.
Romney repeated talking points from a speech he gave on the issue this spring, arguing that health care should be focused at the state level.
Discord on Afghanistan
Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian Republican, said he would bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, disengage the military in Libya and Yemen and use the hundreds of billions in savings to take care of the elderly.
He poo-pooed the old political saw used on both sides of the political aisle that a president should listen to his generals about military matters.
"I wouldn't wait for my generals. I'm the commander-in-chief," he said. "I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do. I'd bring them home as quickly as possible. And I would get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen. And I'd quit bombing Pakistan. "
Though he said that he would bring troops home, Romney added that it would only be when conditions on the ground would allow it.
Romney danced up to the edge, saying he would not raise the debt ceiling. While most economists say that allowing the country to default would lead to economic mayhem, Romney said he would only support raising the debt limit if President Obama can chart a course toward a balanced budget. Now, he suggested, is the crisis point when Republicans should make a stand on government spending, over the debt limit.
"What we say to America is: at some point, you hit a wall," Romney said. "At some point, people around the world say, "I'm not going to keep loaning money to America to pay these massive deficits pay for them because America can't pay them back and the dollar is not worth anything anymore," he said.
Controversy Over Muslims
There was some controversy at the debate when the moderator asked former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain about comments he made that suggested he would not allow a Muslim in his cabinet. Cain clarified, saying he might want to ask a Muslim person certain questions during a job interview about their loyalty to the country.
Gingrich defended Cain and went one step further. He pointed out that Faisal Shahzad, the naturalized Muslim American who attempted to detonate a bomb in Times Square, told a judge he lied about his fealty to the U.S. Gingrich said that this could justify treating Muslims in a similar manner that the U.S. treated Nazis and Communists.
"Now, I just want to go out on a limb here. I'm in favor of saying to people, if you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period," said Gingrich to applause.
"We did this -- we did this in dealing with the Nazis and we did this in dealing with the Communists. And it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered after a while, you know, there are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country. And we have got to have the guts to stand up and say no," he said.
Gingrich also had an unconventional idea to secure the border with Mexico -- a mass mobilization of the National Guard like the U.S. has done in war time. Barring that, he suggested that half the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security be transferred south.
"Somehow we would have done more for American security if we had had the National Guard on the border," he said. "If you don't want to use the National Guard, take -- take half of the current Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy in Washington, transplant it to Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. You'll have more than enough people to control the border."
A Move Toward Smaller Government
Attacking the federal government was a major theme for the night. Bachmann said what's needed is "the mother of all repeal bills" that would wrap up swaths of bureaucracy like the EPA.
Romney and Gingrich said the U.S. would have been better off without NASA, and if the private sector had handled the space program.
The debate also covered a myriad of social issues, like abortion, gay marriage, the auto industry and Wall Street bailouts.
Every one of the candidates opposed the bailouts. And every one was fervently against abortion rights. Romney, who was the governor of Massachusetts, has come under some fire from social conservatives, but when the moderator opened the stage to ask if any candidate's commitment to being "pro-life" was questioned, no one jumped in.
There was broad but not uniform support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Paul and Santorum were alone in saying they would allow a repeal of the military's expiring 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy to go forward.
There was broad agreement that entitlements like Medicare and Social Security should be reformed quickly. Pawlenty said he would soon offer a plan to make Medicare optional for seniors. Herman Cain, pressed by a questioner, said Medicare and Social Security have to be changed.
"I hate to be the one to give you the bad news, doctor," he said. "You're not going to get most of the money you put into Medicare if we don't restructure it. The reason we're in the situation we are today with Medicare and Social Security is because the problem hasn't been solved."