By John Whitesides
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - It was Mitt Romney's turn in the spotlight, and his Republican presidential rivals helped make sure it was successful.
At their first major debate on Monday night, the Republican White House contenders bypassed several chances to take aim at Romney and chip away at his front-runner status in the still forming 2012 nominating battle.
Instead, the polite face-to-face encounter offered the former Massachusetts governor a friendly platform to defend his support of the state's healthcare law free of criticism -- and he took advantage.
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann also performed well in her White House campaign debut as she announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
"It was a good night for Mitt Romney, nobody laid a glove on him," said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "And Bachmann stood out in a field where most of the candidates blend together."
None of the six other candidates participating in the debate even tried to lay a glove on Romney, choosing instead to focus on selling themselves and attacking Obama.
Tim Pawlenty, the mild-mannered conservative former governor of Minnesota, sidestepped several opportunities to criticize Romney's Massachusetts healthcare law, a precursor to Obama's national plan and an object of derision for conservatives.
'ROMNEY IN CHARGE'
Pawlenty's polite refusal early in the debate to engage his rival on the issue face-to-face came one day after he mocked Romney's plan on national television as "Obamneycare."
Romney responded with a lengthy and detailed defense of the plan that included his pledge to support repeal of the national law.
"From that point forward Romney looked in charge," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "I don't know if you could have had a better night if you are Mitt Romney."
His rivals also declined to resurrect criticism from Romney's failed 2008 White House campaign about his relatively late conversion into an abortion rights opponent, a move that helped create his label as a flip-flopper.
"Case closed," said former pizza executive Herman Cain.
The candidates, most still relatively unknown in the critical early voting state of New Hampshire where the debate was held, decided to use their time introducing themselves and convincing Republicans they could win in 2012.
"No one wants to be the bad guy in an early debate," Scala said.
Obama leads most of his Republican rivals in polls, but Bachmann confidently predicted he would be a one-term president. The outspoken conservative from Minnesota was a forceful presence, offering detailed explanations of her views that reinforced her Tea Party appeal.
The other candidate who gained some ground was the one with the most to gain -- former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign seemed on life support after his entire senior staff quit last week .
Gingrich, accustomed to the spotlight and comfortable with the issues, was not asked about the staff desertion but showed he was not giving up quite yet.
"He'll live to fight another day now," Cullen said.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)
(This story was corrected in the fourth paragraph to fix the spelling of Michele Bachmann)