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At NH debate, Bachmann and Pawlenty compete for spotlight

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Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., announced that she is formally entering the race for president during a New Hampshire Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, June 13, 2011.
Jim Cole/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Minnesota's two Republican presidential candidates spent more time criticizing President Obama during a GOP debate Monday night than they did going after their rivals for their party's nomination.  Michele Bachmann captured some of the limelight when she formally announced her intention to run for the White House. 

Going into the debate, Bachmann was the only one of the seven people on stage who had not formally declared herself a candidate for president. But within minutes, that changed.

"I just want to make an announcement here on CNN tonight.  I filed, today, my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the United States," Bachmann said. "I will very soon be making a more formal announcement, so I wanted you to be the first to know."

Moments later Bachmann's campaign sent out a news release saying she was suspending her congressional campaign and no longer seeking re-election in Minnesota's 6th District. She also sent a fundraising email which said, "I'm in."

Early in the debate, Tim Pawlenty defended his assertion that tax cuts and reductions in government regulations and spending could lead to annual economic growth of as much as 5 percent. 

He made that optmistic projection in a speech last week about the economy, and Pawlenty did not back down during the debate. 

"This idea that we can't have 5 percent growth in America is hogwash.  It's a defeatist attitude," Pawlenty said. "If China can have 5 percent growth and Brazil can have 5 percent growth, then the United States of America can have 5 percent growth."

Tim Pawlenty
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty answers a question during the first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, June 13, 2011.
Jim Cole/ASSOCIATED PRESS

None of the other candidates chose to criticize Pawlenty's assertion.  

Moderator John King pushed Pawlenty for an explanation of why, a day earlier, he coined the phrase "ObamneyCare" to link former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's support for health care reform in his state to the Democratic-led federal  health care overhaul. Despite prodding, Pawlenty chose not to criticize Romney while the two were on the same stage. 

"Why would you choose those words, maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there," said King. "If it was ObamneyCare on Fox News Sunday, why is not ObamneyCare standing here with the governor right there?"

"President Obama is the person I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program," Pawlenty responded.   

Pawlenty and Bachmann both expressed support for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would ban  same-sex marriage. Both also underscored their opposition to legalized abortion. Bachmann declined an opportunity to criticize Pawlenty for supporting abortion in cases of rape or incest.  

Both also said they would repeal the federal health care law. 

On foreign policy, Pawlenty said he would support military action against Yemen if necessary. Bachmann called the U.S. intervention in Libya substantially flawed, and said elements of the rebels the U.S. and other countries are helping could have connections to terrorism.

Following the debate, surrogates from the campaigns tried to convince reporters their candidates did the best. Watching off to the side was longtime GOP insider Patrick Griffin, who's  worked for both Presidents Bush and several other candidates. He is not working for any of the 2012 contenders. 

Griffin said he was impressed by Bachmann's performance. Griffin said Bachmann looked and acted presidential. 

"Michele Bachmann was better than expected. Early on, that's important," said Griffin. "She was more deliberate, I think more thoughtful, I think more presidential than Sarah Palin comes across in these kind of venues."

Griffin said Pawlenty made a mistake by not jumping at the chance to distinguish himself from Mitt Romney, who is perceived to be the frontrunner.

"He teed up the health care issue, wouldn't take the bait on it, kind of punted on it a bit -- which I thought was clumsy," said Griffin. "I thought he had an opportunity to say, 'I said that, I think it's true.'"

Pawlenty and Bachmann will be back on the Republican presidential debate stage in mid-August, much closer to home in Ames, Iowa.