(Photo: Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)
GOP presidential candidates focused their political assault on the White House rather their Republican opponents during the New Hampshire debates. Conservatives say their focus is on winning back America. Critics say it is about keeping fiscal and social conservatives united against the president.
Candidates repeatedly thwarted CNN anchor and debate moderator John King's efforts to attack their fellow Republican contenders, choosing instead to focus on Barack Obama.
King began by asking Rick Santorum to comment on the plausibility of Tim Pawlenty's pledge to grow the economy by five or four percent a year.
Santorum dodged the question stating, "I think we need a president who's optimistic, who has a pro-growth agenda. I'm not going to comment on five percent or four percent."
Mitt Romney, currently the frontrunner in the race, also avoided criticizing Pawlenty's goal.
"Look, Tim has the right instincts," he answered, then trailed off into a reprisal of the president's actions.
"He (Pawlenty) recognizes that what this president has done has slowed the economy. He (Obama) didn't create the recession, but he made it worse and longer. And now we have … 20 million people out of work, stopped looking for work, or in part-time jobs that need full-time jobs," Romney responded.
Pawlenty also evaded attacking Romney's Massachusetts health care plan which he dubbed "Obamney Care" Sunday.
However, candidates pulled the gloves off when it came to Obama and his policy.
Michele Bachmann, who informally declared she will run for president, said President Obama has a failing grade when it comes to the economy and declared, "President Obama is a one-term president."
When asked if Obama had done one right thing when it comes to the U.S. economy, libertarian Ron Paul laughed and answered, "No, no, I can't think of anything."
Eric Sapp, the founding member of the Christian Democrat consultant firm the Eleison Group, said he was disappointed by the debate.
"They (Republicans) have a right to bring an alternative vision for America and alternative ideas and to be critical," Sapp acknowledged.
But he said the GOP candidates did more of the latter and less of the former. Sapp saidthe candidates simply stuck to their talking points.
"There were no ideas, there was nothing about this is our vision, this is what we're going to do, this is how were going to fix this problem," he lamented. "It was all critiquing Obama."
Tony Perkins, the leader of conservative group Family Research Council, said he believed the singular focus on Obama was a good strategy.
He told The Christian Post, "I think it is wise to keep focused on replacing the current occupant of the White House and reversing his policies that are undermining America's freedom and prosperity."
Perkins also said he did see differences among the candidates in policy issues.
In answering the question about a jobs plan, Herman Cain emphasized cutting taxes on private sector businesses. Santorum advocated getting rid of oppressive government regulation.
Still, many of candidates' ideas on minimizing government, fixing the economy and creating jobs were similar.
Sapp said the candidates did not reveal more detailed and divergent economic plans because they are afraid it may cause a rift between fiscal conservatives and Christian conservatives who are mostly concerned with social issues such as family and marriage.
Perkins told evangelicals at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference recently that the national budget is in its current condition because the government is trying to provide entitlements to help families marred by divorce and a decline in traditional marriage.
Presidential hopefuls need acknowledge the social underpinnings of the economic crisis in their campaigns, he believes.
"Real conservatives understand the interconnectedness of the social with the economic and the economic with national security," Perkins told The Christian Post via email.
Only four candidates – Bachmann, Pawlenty, Santorum and Newt Gingrich – displayed that understanding, he identified.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told evangelicals at the FFC conference not to focus on purity of conservative ideals, but rather on winning back the White House. Any GOP candidate, he emphasized, would "agree with you a lot more than they're going to agree with Barack Obama."
Perkins, on the other hand, advocates uncompromised conservatism.
He remarked in a CNN editorial, "Barbour has repeatedly said, 'Purity is the enemy of victory.' That's a nice sound bite, but it won't win you the Republican nomination or the White House. When it comes to conservative principles, compromise is the companion of losers."
During the Monday night debate, seven candidates – Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Pawlenty, Romney and Santorum – addressed issues ranging from the debt ceiling to abortion rights.
Sapp, a Christian, believes the GOP candidates featured in the debate were all "jokes." Christian conservatives are in for a shock, he said, because the current presidential candidates are fiscal conservatives and are bound to compromise on their key social issues.
"The Christian right is going to start panicking when they see the things that they care about [are] not being reflected," Sapp predicted.
Perkins agreed that the Monday debate "was not conducive to social issues," but said it is still early in the election cycle for a winning conservative candidate to emerge from the pack or enter the race.
He said of the current candidates, "I'm optimistic about our options – We've got some good candidates to choose from."