MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - The gloves didn’t have to come off on Monday night in a Lincoln-Douglas style debate between Republican rivals Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, who found more agreement than strife on foreign policy issues.
The debate pitted the current Republican front-runner against the former Utah governor who is trailing in the dead-last zone among the pack of candidates running to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in November 2012.
Designed to avoid scripted answers and one-line zingers, the debate covered subjects including engagement with Iran, the rise of China and the future of U.S. relations with Pakistan.
But the format was the main focus, and candidates hoped to showcase their foreign policy expertise without strict constraints on the time each could take to answer a question.
Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Gingrich has become the front-runner largely on the back of strong performances in a series of candidates’ debates.
As he likes to remind his audience regularly, Gingrich is a font of historical knowledge, with no fact - even including the GNP of Ghana in 1975 - too trivial.
Huntsman, a three-time U.S. ambassador, is polling in the low single digits nationally and has staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire. The debate was one of about 200 events he will have done in the state by time its primary is held on January 10.
Monday’s event was patterned on the 1858 race for U.S. Senate in Illinois, when incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas and upstart Republican lawyer Abraham Lincoln held a series of seven three-hour debates in towns throughout the state on the day’s hottest topic: slavery.
The wonkish, 90-minute affair might also have been a reminder of why long debates have gone out of fashion in the age of television, soundbites and Twitter.
The term “debate” itself was debatable: the two agreed on so much that some viewers wondered if they were seeing the genesis of a Gingrich-Huntsman presidential ticket - the gruff elder statesman and the photogenic former governor.
Gingrich came out swinging, saying that if Iran was permitted to develop nuclear weapons, it would use them in a “heartbeat” and potentially wipe out Israel.
“Two or three nuclear weapons is a holocaust” for Israel that would mean “virtually the end of Judaism,” Gingrich said.
Huntsman agreed on the dangers Iran posed, but his rhetoric was considerably less heated. He called Iran “the transcendent issue of this decade” for U.S. foreign policy.
In the end, Huntsman and Gingrich worked through only five of the 10 topics they had agreed to discuss, so wordy were their answers.
But Huntsman, whose young daughter nodded off a few times in the warm auditorium, was ready for more.
“I think the real winners might be the American people,” he said after the debate.
Huntsman’s campaign immediately challenged Mitt Romney, front-runner in New Hampshire, to a similar event. Gingrich, for his part, has challenged President Barack Obama to seven three-hour debates.
Editing by Doina Chiacu