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June 12. 2011 8:51PM

Seven GOP contenders to debate tonight

GOFFSTOWN — Candidates seeking the Republican Party nomination for the 2012 presidential election have a chance at a debate tonight to find differences, however subtle, to separate themselves from the pack.

The debate is sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader, CNN and WMUR and runs tonight from 8 to 10 p.m. at St. Anselm College's Sullivan Arena.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are scheduled to participate.

Tonight's debate is the second among Republicans who either are presidential candidates or are considering a run, though Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann did not participate in the first forum, held May 5 in Greenville, S.C., and hosted by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party.

“Most of them are looking to build name recognition,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political science professor at Southern New Hampshire University who runs a political blog, nhpoliticalcapital.com. “The way to build name recognition is by being at the mike and saying something interesting.”

Spiliotes said he is looking to see how the other candidates will respond to Romney, who has been consistently leading the polls. Four years ago, Republican candidates “ganged up” on Romney, he said. Romney placed second in the New Hampshire primary in 2008 to the eventual Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Deborah Jordan Brooks, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, said early debates rarely result in focused attacks, as candidates usually try to stay on message and not run the risk of alienating themselves from voters.

“You will generally tend to see candidates in front of the pack such as Romney focusing on promoting positive messages and probably also on attacking President Obama, rather than on attacking the other primary contenders,” she said. “But the fun of primary debates, especially early on, is that they are not predictable. And this Republican primary, in particular, does not lend itself to easy predictions.”

Each of the candidates' platforms so far has been very similar. All of them call President Obama a terrible leader, say federal spending is out of control, call for deficit reduction and call for the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which all of them refer to by its other moniker, “Obamacare.”

On their campaign websites, just one, Paul, has attacked or referenced any of the other candidates, lambasting Romney for his support of the Massachusetts Health Care Insurance Reform law, which Paul calls by its other moniker, “Romneycare.”

Monday night's debate comes on the heels of an ABC/Washington Post poll released last week that had registered voters saying they would choose Romney over President Barack Obama by a 49 percent to 46 percent margin. None of the other declared or prospective Republican candidates would defeat the President, according to the poll's results.

Spiliotes said he will be interested to see if any of the other candidates handle Romney now that he is the presumptive frontrunner.

“Is it going to be him versus the others?” he said. “I'm sure he's going to have to talk about Romneycare.”

That first debate had one other participant, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who was not invited to participate in tonight's forum and whose exclusion sparked some protest from supporters. He did not meet specific criteria for inclusion in the debate, including receiving an average of at least 2 percent in at least three national polls released in April.

There were only a few times the candidates at last month's gathering differed from each other. Most of the time, those breaks from traditional Republican Party platforms were offered by Paul, who called for pulling out of the war in Afghanistan and legalizing drugs.

The first debate was sparsely watched. Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was spotted by a news crew eating dinner in a Washington steakhouse as the debate aired.

Tonight's debate has some competition for viewers, as the sixth game of the Stanley Cup playoff finals between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks begins at 8 p.m., which is when the debate kicks off.

Spiliotes said he believes this debate also will be watched primarily by “hardcore grassroots campaign people, politics followers and the media” rather than the general public.

This debate “is about making a good impression on the political elite,” he said.

Mitch Daniels, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Jon Huntsman, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump were also invited to attend. Palin, Giuliani and Huntsman declined the invitation, while the others decided not to run.

Huntsman is the only candidate to have declined an invitation to each of the first two debates.

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To watch tonight's debate live on CNN.comclick here.


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