MANCHESTER, N.H. — Front-runner Newt Gingrich, ever eager for a debate, spent 90 minutes Monday exploring foreign policy with one of the GOP presidential field's laggards, Jon Huntsman.
It was a cordial, thoughtful encounter utterly devoid of the zingers and gotchas that have made the last dozen GOP presidential debates must-see TV for political junkies.
Huntsman, basking in the attention that Gingrich commands, wasn't about to challenge the former House speaker on even the most inflammatory comments.
After Gingrich bluntly said Iran is training a generation of suicide bombers, for instance, Huntsman would only call the comment "hypothetical."
"We had a discussion on the issues," he said afterward when pressed to explain his kid-gloves approach.
The former Utah governor, excluded from a televised Iowa debate Saturday night, had far more to gain from Gingrich's willingness to share a spotlight. He fairly gushed at his rival, at one point calling him "a great historian."
Gingrich returned the compliment, calling Huntsman "very knowledgeable about China" in particular and thanking him for a "candid and sophisticated discussion."
Gingrich held a similar event in Houston last month with Herman Cain, shortly before Cain dropped out of the race. The bonhomie made the event at St. Anselm College, billed as a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, a win-win for both contenders.
That made for a somewhat less confrontational experience than the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, on which these events were loosely modeled.
"They both did well," said Pamela Hathaway, a self-employed Manchester voter wearing a Newt 2012 button Monday afternoon. She'll stick with the former speaker but said, "I got a greater appreciation for Mr. Huntsman."
Phillips Bradley, 64, a retired federal aviation engineer from nearby Goffstown, hasn't picked a candidate yet. He's leaning toward Mitt Romney, but came away impressed by both Gingrich and Huntsman.
He called Huntsman "intelligent and thoughtful," and obviously well-informed on foreign policy.
"Huntsman looked very strong," he said. "So for Gingrich to be able to sit down and hold his own — that makes him look even better."
During the debate, Huntsman argued that it's time to bring troops home from Afghanistan — an idea that makes him an outlier in the GOP field. Gingrich didn't challenge him on it.12 comments on this story
Huntsman warned that with Pakistan at risk of failing as a nation-state, the U.S. must work harder to build other relationships in the region — with India, especially, a huge democracy that neighbors both Pakistan and China.
Gingrich, too, repeated well-worn views. "You can't be the arsenal of democracy unless you have an arsenal," he said, arguing for the need to shore up domestic manufacturing, though neither Huntsman nor the moderator pressed for details.
On Iran, he was especially bellicose, arguing that unless the U.S. is willing to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran — which Gingrich isn't — the only realistic course is to throw out the current regime somehow.
Huntsman skirted the details but broadly agreed. "The transcendent threat from a foreign-policy perspective is Iran," he said.