By Stump Connolly

What does it take to get a Republican excited? In New Hampshire Monday night, it wasn’t the space age set created by CNN for the first presidential debate of the 2012 season. It wasn’t the jumbotron filled with Twitter questions, the debonair hosting of John King, or the breath-taking intelligence of all those deep thinkers up on stage talking over the issues of the day.

No, if you want to get Republicans excited these days you only have to say one word: Obama, as in “anybody but Obama.” And that’s what the Republicans got in New Hampshire, seven mildly interesting contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination who are anything but the next Barack Obama.

Seven Choirboys Singing Loud

It wasn’t much of a debate, as debates go; it was more like seven choirboys singing the Republican catechism at the top of their lungs trying to get noticed: Cut spending, lower taxes, and get government out of the way so private enterprise can lead America back to its glory days.

No surprise, the man who has occupied the stage before, Mitt Romney, did the most succinct job of putting forward the case.  But all the candidates did more than their fair share of preaching to the choir, which was a good thing because this was not a crowd that wanted to hear about the complexity of solving the nation’s economic problems.

When the biggest applause line of the night goes to right-to-work laws, is it any surprise Rep. Michelle Bachmann got a rousing round of support for her announcement she was officially entering the race?

There’s not much point in parsing the differences in the candidate responses to audience questions because the debate never got that deep into any one of them. The first candidate encounter of the 2012 campaign will be better remembered for the candidates who didn’t break surface water – Godfather Pizza mogul Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum and, especially, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Hold the life preservers. Some of them don’t deserve to make it.

Pawlenty Muffs It

Pawlenty had the most to gain from the debate and, by not taking advantage of the opportunity, managed to lose the most. Despite his first-in-the-pool status, he’s been struggling among Republicans with low name recognition and support in low 4-6% percent since he announced. Political pundits have been waiting for Pawlenty to stake his claim on the nomination and hoping he would do it by pinning Romney down on the similarities between the health care plan Romney passed in Massachusetts and President Obama healthcare package.

Pawlenty set up the showdown Sunday on Fox News when he conflated Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s health care plans into a single word: “ObamneyCare”. But when an audience member asked Pawlenty about it during the debate, he danced around the characterization.

Moderator John King was not impressed. “You chose those words. So my question is why would you choose those words, maybe in the comfort of a Sunday talk show, when your rival is standing right there,” he insisted. “If it was ObamneyCare on Fox News Sunday, why is it not ObamneyCare standing here with the governor right there?”

In one fell swoop, Pawlenty’s little single-engine campaign, riding the light breeze of a straight-shooting Republican, took a nosedive; and the press’s belief that he has the fortitude to take on Romney over the long primary season went down with it.

Romney Scores

Romney could hardly contain his glee as he watched Pawlenty struggle with his answer. He jumped at the chance to differentiate the Massachusetts plan from Obama’s with a well-scripted and rehearsed response. If Obama modeled his national health care plan on Romney’s,  “why didn’t you (Mr. President) give me a call and ask what worked and what didn’t?”

Until Monday night’s debate, the conventional wisdom was that the Republican dance card was full. Beside Romney, the only other Republican on the stage who held his own was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He did so with answers both substantive and controversial. (Do we really want to have a loyalty test for Muslims seeking federal jobs?) But it’s hard to see how his campaign can survive the mass defection of his staff or his own aversion to the hard work of campaigning.

Another Texan?

The ultimate winners of Monday night’s debate were the candidates who weren’t there – but soon will be. The implosion of Gingrich’s staff sent his two top campaign advisers––Rob Johnson and Dave Carney––back into the camp of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Johnson, 36, ran Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.) A year ago, Perry looked––and spoke––too much like another George Bush to be taken seriously. Over the last six weeks, however, Gingrich’s stumbles have given Perry new momentum. The premise is that a Southern conservative with a right of center social agenda and a record of creating jobs in Texas (under a right-to-work law) holds a lot of the high ground in today’s Republican party. Watch for an announcement in a couple weeks.

A New Version of the Old Romney

Also gearing up––the all-but-certain formal announcement is set for Tuesday––is Jon Huntsman, the former Utah Governor that President Obama chose as his ambassador to China. Huntsman is more in the Romney mold back when that mold contained a moderate Republican known as a problem solver. (As times changed, so did Romney.)

Like Romney, Huntsman is a Mormon, but he is not especially doctrinaire about his religion. He has money. His father is credited with inventing the plastic egg carton and the family business supplies Styrofoam containers to everyone from McDonald’s to L’Eggs pantyhose. He has a rebellious streak. His youthful career includes a stint in a failed rock band and numerous motorcycle trips across the southwest. Like Romney, he became a popular and successful governor, in Huntsman’s case, by building his reputation on fiscal austerity. But unlike Romney (and all the rest of the Republican rivals), Huntsman has demonstrated a willingness to work with Obama on foreign issues, even if they disagree on domestic policy.

Many George Bush supporters in mainstream Republican quarters are drawn to Huntsman precisely because of his moderate views, and Huntsman has been careful in building his organization since returning from China in early May. He has tested his appetite for the retail campaigning needed in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina while at the same time making the appropriate pilgrimages to the Republican money trees in New York, Washington and California. He has strategically placed his campaign headquarters in his wife’s native state of Florida. And his media team is ready to go. The Tuesday announcement is already being heralded on YouTube by a commercial featuring Huntsman on a motorcycle riding across the desert dressed as a latter day Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

Checking All The Boxes

“I’ve pretty much checked all the boxes,” he said in setting Tuesday as his launch date. But for all the media fascination with his candidacy his slow roll out has left him with name recognition and popularity numbers around 1 to 2 percent in polls. His challenge as the last candidate into the race will be to grow that number quickly.

How he does it, whether he can do it –– and, frankly, whether the Republican party of 2012 even wants him as a member ­­–– is the most interesting story of the campaign. But that’s a story for another day because, now that the campaign has begun in earnest, we’ve got to take them one day at a time.

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