The gloves will come off

Look for congeniality to fade as GOP candidates define themselves

There was no shortage of civility at Monday evening's Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire.

Don't get used to it.

The GOP's seven declared aspirants to take on President Obama in 2012 weren't quite ready to turn on one another to better define their platforms. Instead, they took turns enumerating what most informed voters already know: The president is corkscrewing America's economy into the ground, and it won't improve unless more business-friendly policies invigorate the private sector.

But by the time the next debate rolls around, look for the candidates to be more aggressive toward one another. Voters will need to know which person is the greater social conservative, or the stronger fiscal hawk, or the tougher enforcer on immigration -- and to show those strengths, candidates will have to exploit the chinks in the others' armor.

While viewers got clear glimpses of candidates' positions on many issues, the evening lacked vivid contrast. Even calling Monday's event a "debate" is a bit of a stretch. It was more of an extended question-and-answer session in which candidates could respond to one another.

Even when moderator John King of CNN prodded candidates to cross swords, they wouldn't take the bait -- most conspicuously when King tried to coax former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to expand on the pejorative "Obamneycare" that Pawlenty coined over the weekend as a dig at the state health-care plan Mitt Romney enacted while governor of Massachusetts.

There were flashes of passion among all the candidates, and minor breakout moments as each participant trod familiar ideological ground -- such as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania on abortion, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas on the role of government, and Pawlenty on economic growth.

Who were the biggest winners in Monday's political roundtable? Romney and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Both exhibited the most polish and poise, and had the biggest takeaway benefits. The night's congenial atmosphere allowed Romney, the slight front-runner coming in, to leave the debate unscathed. And Bachmann strengthened her position by officially announcing her candidacy.

The loser of the night? King's vapid "this or that" icebreakers -- little either-or questions designed to soften and humanize the candidates.

Instead, they came off as merely fatuous time-wasters. A typical out-of-work American sitting at home eating his last can of tuna doesn't particularly care whether former House Speaker Newt Gingrich prefers TV shows Dancing with the Stars or American Idol .

It's still too early to designate a single Republican front-runner. The candidate who achieves that distinction will be the one who best defines a positive image in the eyes of both social and fiscal conservatives, and who hammers the issues that resonate the strongest with average struggling Americans.

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