GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — 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.