In GOP New Hampshire Debate, Bachmann Provides Fireworks as Romney Escapes Unscathed

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican presidential hopefuls (L-R) former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (R-GA), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain pose at the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 campaign at St. Anslems College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann gave an electrifying performance in Monday’s night Republican presidential primary debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, using the platform to announce her decision to formally file papers to run for President and delivering plenty of crowd-pleasing soundbites. But while Bachmann made headlines and outperformed low expectations, it was prohibitive front-runner Mitt Romney who emerged from the debate in finest form.

Bachmann used her first opportunity to speak — a rather dry question about repealing the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law — to break the news of her candidacy, guaranteeing that she wouldn’t be lost in the shuffle of second and third tier candidates onstage at the seven-way debate. In a way, the biggest loser in Bachmann’s coming out party was Sarah Palin, who shares much of Bachmann’s appeal, with far higher negatives in early polling.

The rest of Bachmann’s answers were quick and to-the-point (with plenty of references to her 23 foster children), and more memorable than those of former pizza mogul Herman Cain, who played the role of surprise Tea Party standout in an earlier debate in South Carolina. Both were more focused and on-point than the gushing, monetary policy-heavy answers of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s answers were solid, but forgettable. And the fact that Newt Gingrich got through the debate without being asked about his campaign staff’s mass exodus, his recent trip to Greece, or any number of other missteps in recent weeks, might have been a blessing, although it seemed to reinforce the notion that his candidacy is not being taken too seriously.

The pivotal moment of the debate, however, came when the two top-tier candidates in attendance, former governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, faced off over an issue with the potential to define the field: the health care plan the latter instituted in Massachusetts, and which went on to serve as a model for President Obama’s national overhaul. Pawlenty, who just a day prior had referred to his rival’s plan as “ObamneyCare” on Fox News Sunday, declined to reuse that neologism or criticize his opponent to his face.

Early primary debates are often mutual lovefests where invective is only directed at an incumbent President of the opposing party. Monday night’s debate was no exception, and Obama caught flak in most answers, while little if any Elephant-on-Elephant violence occured. But Pawlenty’s awkward refusal to revisit his critical characterization of Romney’s plan, including an odd attempt to attribute the remark to both the original interviewer and President Obama himself, came off as muddled and uncertain.

“Well, the issue that was raised in a question from a reporter was, what are the similarities between the two,” Pawlenty said. “And I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare. “

Romney, meanwhile, used every available second to hammer Obama. “This President has failed,” he said repeatedly. “And he’s failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy growing.”

The former governor also seemed more affable and at ease than he did in some of the 2007 debates, where the personal animosity between candidates frequently boiled over. Not so this time. Romney made a point of saying that any one of the prospective Republican candidates on stage Monday night would make a better President than the White House’s current occupant, and praised Pawlenty for having “the right instincts” on the economy. Romney’s one slip, an inadvertent reference to handing over control of Afghanistan to the “Taliban military” was quickly corrected, and none of his fellow debaters opted to pounce on it.

Romney’s Monday night victory, then, was one by default. He entered the debate as the front-runner and left in the same position, even if the GOP field grew by one in the mean time.