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The Manchester Lovefest

In tonight's CNN debate, the Republican candidates decided they all just want to get along

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From the moment it began, tonight's CNN debate seemed more like a sprint than a marathon, as moderator John King tore through his questions like an over-caffeinated auctioneer. But all the energy and social-media accoutrements didn't seem to achieve a whole lot. There was little disagreement or confrontation between the candidates, despite King's best efforts to engender them.

This reluctance was especially pronounced with Tim Pawlenty, who yesterday attacked Mitt Romney's health care plan as "Obamneycare," but then repeatedly shrunk from that characterization when pressed on it by King. As a group, the candidates were staunchly conservative on social issues and highly critical of anything involving President Obama. (Asked if there were a single Obama action he agreed with, Ron Paul replied, "I can't think of one.")

In my view, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann turned in the best performances. Romney seemed comfortable and less wince-inducing than he normally is, kept his answers focused on the economy, and benefited from Pawlenty's (and the other candidates') unwillingness to challenge him.

Bachmann used the occasion of her first answer to announce that she was formally running for president. Then she turned a performance that was much more poised than some of her earlier campaign appearances, looking every bit as comfortable on the stage as Romney, and much more so than some of the other candidates. Relative to expectations, she probably had the best night. She managed to get across her conservative bona fides--twice voting against TARP, and pointing out that she did so "behind closed doors against my own party"--but without seeming wild-eyed or scary to moderates.

There was no small measure of awkwardness, but that was due chiefly to a steady stream of ridiculous questions from King, meant to "humanize" the candidates, that recalled the "boxers or briefs?" question once asked of Bill Clinton by MTV.

Overall, the debate seemed to establish that the battle for the GOP nomination will be fought on deeply conservative terrain. But it also suggested that the candidates aren't in any hurry to join that battle, at least not among themselves. The last segment of the debate degenerated somewhat oddly into a praisefest. In fact, there were probably more compliments exchanged tonight than attacks.

At some point, as the Iowa caucuses near, that will have to change. (Pawlenty in particular had better learn how to spar.) Or perhaps next week's polls will show Romney extending his lead, and that will force the field to get tougher on him. But until something happens to change the dynamic, the candidates seem content to campaign against Obama, and not against each other.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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