Opening a new phase in a race to define the direction of their party, the leading Republican presidential candidates gathered Monday night for the first time to begin drawing distinctions among themselves in a vibrant competition to be seen as sufficiently conservative for primary voters, but electable enough to defeat President Obama.
The seven contenders, standing onstage here for two hours in a prime-time televised debate, repeatedly passed on the opportunity to seize upon the fissures that have roiled the Republican Party for most of the last two years. They presented a forceful, and nearly unified, attack against Mr. Obama, especially on the economy, the budget deficit and health care.
The spotlight was trained squarely on Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, who has come under withering attack for the health care plan he signed into law that resembles the plan Mr. Obama pushed through Congress. But his rivals treaded lightly, and he relentlessly turned the conversation back to Mr. Obama, emerging unscathed from his return to the debate stage four years after losing his first bid for the party’s nomination.
In one sign of how the candidates continue to develop and refine policy positions at this early stage of the race, Mr. Romney called for American troops to return from Afghanistan as soon as possible, declaring, “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.” He sought to press his credentials as a chief executive, arguing that he was best suited to promote a message of economic revival and job creation.
Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who remains largely unknown to many Republicans across the country, highlighted his blue-collar roots as he sought to introduce himself as a leading alternative to Mr. Romney. He had coined a new word a day before the debate — “Obamneycare” — a term aimed at criticizing both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama in a single breath, but when the debate got under way, he chose not to press the attack, apparently to avoid coming off as too negative.
The debate, which took place on the campus of St. Anselm College, just outside Manchester, provided the biggest opportunity for an introduction — or reintroduction — of many of the candidates. Each of the contenders had serious moments and enlightening exchanges in a lively forum that ended without any noticeable gaffes or missteps.
Newt Gingrich, whose campaign imploded last week when virtually his entire senior strategy team resigned, did not mention the controversy and sought to rebrand himself as the idea-driven policy candidate. But he exhibited a defensive tone from the outset, and at times lectured the debate moderator, John King of CNN, for how he characterized the responses.
Mr. Gingrich came into the debate facing continued criticism for appearing several weeks ago to speak against Representative Paul D. Ryan’s proposed budget plan that would provide Medicare subsidies allowing seniors to buy their insurance in the private market.
Asked to address that criticism, Mr. Gingrich said his comments, against “radical change” on either side of the aisle, had been taken out of context. He said he supported Mr. Ryan’s budget as “a general proposal.”
But he seemed to repeat at least some of his critique. “If you’re dealing with something as big as Medicare and can’t have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you’re doing is the right thing, you better slow down,” Mr. Gingrich said.
The debate had the feel of the official campaign kickoff, if only because it was the first one to include the presumptive front-runner, Mr. Romney.
But two potential candidates did not show: former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., of Utah — until several weeks ago Mr. Obama’s ambassador to China — and former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.
Underscoring how Ms. Palin’s possible candidacy hangs over the field, she did figure in one question at the end of the debate, when Mr. King asked who made a better choice of running mate in 2008, Mr. Obama or Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Mr. Pawlenty took it as an opportunity to praise Ms. Palin, who has a loyal and motivated following. “I think Governor Palin’s a remarkable leader,” he said, going on to criticize Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as “wrong on everything.”
But Ms. Palin’s absence created an opening for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who is similarly well liked by grass-roots Tea Party Republicans — and whose supporters have sought to present her as more substantive and better rooted in policy than Ms. Palin is.
Ms. Bachmann made maximum use of her appearance, taking the unique step of using the occasion to formally announce that she was running for president — until then she had been only exploring a run — and to introduce herself as “a former federal tax litigation attorney,” as a businesswoman and as a mother and foster parent.
On Monday she seemed solid on her feet as she, for instance, criticized the United States’ role in the NATO intervention in Libya as failing to forward “any vital American interest.”
If Ms. Bachmann had any competition for the Tea Party vote, it came from former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who said in response to a question, “I think the Tea Party is a great backstop for America.”
Mr. Santorum is perhaps best known as a social conservative and has sought to establish himself as having a broader set of interests and skills in this early going during the campaign. Asked about his views on the separation between church and state, Mr. Santorum said: “We get along because we know that we — all of our ideas are allowed in and tolerated. That’s what makes America work.”
Representative Ron Paul of Texas, enjoying newfound cachet because the Tea Party movement has taken well to his libertarianism, repeated his calls to end the Federal Reserve and cut military spending. But in that sense, he was a familiar presence.
Seeking to usurp Mr. Paul’s role of 2008 as an unexpected voice was the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain. Mr. Cain, however, struggled when Mr. King questioned him about his past statement that “a lot of Muslims are not totally dedicated to this country” and that he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet without knowing his or her dedication to the Constitution.
Mr. Cain said he was uncomfortable “because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us.” He added, “I was thinking about the ones that are trying to kill us, number one.”
Mr. Romney said: “I think we recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.”