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Associated Press/Photo by Jim Cole

Round one

Campaign 2012 | New Hampshire's GOP presidential debate leaves the current frontrunner unchallenged and his opponents looking for a foothold

Michele Bachmann offered the first two announcements during Monday night's Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire: 1.) She's running for president; 2.) Barack Obama is a one-term president.

The first announcement is verifiable: The Republican congresswoman from Minnesota filed papers on Monday to register her presidential candidacy. But the second proclamation represents the biggest political question of the next 18 months: Will one of the Republicans on the New Hampshire stage unseat President Obama next year?

Last night's debate arrived with a second pressing question: Would former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney-the GOP frontrunner, according to current polls-manage to remain ahead?

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For a debate between seven candidates, one narrative dominated for nearly two hours: The candidates didn't make a strong case against each other but leveled vigorous arguments against Obama.

Indeed, the Republicans often praised each other while mostly debating a man who wasn't in the room. By the end of the night, Romney proclaimed that all of the candidates on the stage would make a better president than Obama, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Sarah Palin, who has not declared her candidacy and wasn't at the debate, was qualified for the job.

The tepid sparring between Romney and Pawlenty-a relative unknown seeking to raise his national profile-brought one of the most anticlimactic exchanges of the evening. When CNN debate moderator John King offered Pawlenty an easy set-up for a swift blow against Romney's controversial Massachusetts healthcare plan, Pawlenty inexplicably retreated to his corner.

Days earlier, Pawlenty coined the kind of punchy catchphrase for Romney's policy that could endure for an entire campaign season: Obamneycare. (Pawlenty seized on conservative criticisms that Romney's policy paved the way for Obama's federal healthcare plan.) But when King offered Pawlenty an open door to attack, he instead said he coined the term because Obama compared his federal plan to Romney's policy and didn't elaborate on why he thinks Romney's plan was a bad idea.

The moderator offered another shot to Pawlenty, pointing out that Romney was standing next to him. But Pawlenty stayed in his corner, allowing Romney to escape unscathed on the issue that could represent his biggest political challenge in the race.

For Pawlenty-a candidate battling a narrative that says he doesn't have enough gravitas for the presidency-the exchange likely didn't help. Instead, Romney seized the moment to repeat his argument that the Massachusetts policy was a state plan that shouldn't be replicated on the national level, and that states should shape healthcare policies designed to serve their own citizens. Whether that argument resonates with conservatives, Romney sounded a conservative states-rights notes during what could have been his most difficult moment of the night.

A few minutes later, Romney faced another potentially damaging moment: a discussion on abortion. The once pro-abortion governor says he changed his mind about abortion while studying the issue of embryonic stem cell research. Some conservative critics have accused Romney of flip-flopping on the issue for political gain, and the question dogged him during the 2008 presidential primaries, especially among social conservatives.

When King asked former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum if it's legitimate to question Romney's authenticity on abortion, the staunchly pro-life Santorum said it's wise to examine a candidate's record and evaluate his authenticity, but he didn't offer any assessment of Romney. (Santorum did offer an impassioned defense of the sanctity of life and vowed to press the issue as president.)

When Romney reaffirmed his position-"I am firmly pro-life"-King asked the other candidates if the case was closed. After a moment of tense silence from the candidates, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain muttered, "Case closed." The moderator repeated, "OK, case closed."

While the case likely won't remain closed during the rest of the campaign for Romney on issues like healthcare and abortion, the opening salvos offered him a welcomed starting point: With none of the other candidates-including Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich-vigorously challenging the frontrunner, Romney could use that momentum to build a case that he's the best Republican candidate to defeat a challenging foe.

In the meantime, all of the Republican candidates will likely consider how to best distinguish themselves in a field that's drawn lackluster reaction from voters. Considering that some of the most revealing moments of the night came when the moderator lightheartedly asked each candidate to choose between pop culture icons like the television shows Dancing with the Stars and American Idol (Gingrich chose Idol), the road to the nomination remains a steep climb.

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