MANCHESTER, N.H. — There were no time limits, formal rules or reporters asking questions.
And if you ask Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, they would say there were no clear winners or losers Monday night in what was billed as a "Lincoln-Douglas" presidential debate modeled after the 1858 meetings of Illinois Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
In fact, after a 90-minute free-flowing discussion about foreign policy and national security, it was difficult to discern a single area where the Republican presidential contenders disagreed. There were no rhetorical bombs thrown. And what criticism surfaced was aimed at President Barack Obama and America's threats abroad.
Yet Gingrich was absolutely thrilled.
"This is what we should have a lot more of, because this is substantive," said Gingrich, the former House speaker. "This is not a Hollywood game. This is not a reality show. This is reality."
In some ways, the format was a dream come true for Gingrich, a self-proclaimed historian and former college professor, whose intellect and willingness to challenge his rivals has aided a sudden rise in the polls. Having lost most of his campaign cash and staffers over the summer, he bet his presidential ambitions almost exclusively on national media interviews and debates.
But Monday's forum, in which the candidates discussed broad topics like Israel and China with only suggested time limits, gave the former speaker further freedom to showcase his knowledge of domestic and foreign affairs, without facing difficult questions about his personal life and controversial policies. It was his second such free-style discussion with a Republican rival – he met with former candidate Herman Cain last month – and may serve as a preview of things to come should Gingrich ultimately win the right to face President Barack Obama next fall.
Even before his rise in the polls, Gingrich had challenged Obama to a series of seven three-hour "Lincoln-Douglas" debates. And he reminds voters every chance he gets that he's willing and able to take on the president.
So eager is Gingrich that he all but called the president "a chicken" during a previous campaign stop Monday morning.
"The president is a Columbia and Harvard law graduate. He was the editor of Harvard Law Review. He is the best orator in the Democratic party," Gingrich said. "How does he look in a mirror and say to himself, `I'm afraid to debate a teacher from West Georgia College?'"
The Obama campaign declined to respond.
But Gingrich says he won't give the president an option. He promised to resort to stalking if necessary.
"The White House will become my scheduler," he said, adding that everywhere the president delivers a speech, he'd show up and deliver his own rebuttal that same day.
He'd do it as long as it takes for Obama to give in.
"Four hours after he speaks, I will answer his speech every single speech from that day on. And I just think in the age of mass media, and blogs, and talk radio and 24-hour cable news, the White House won't be able to take more than two or three weeks of that."
This willingness to face off against his rivals – particularly Obama – drives confidence among his growing base of supporters.
"I think it's a great forum for Newt, because he's not a scripted candidate," said Jonathan White, a former priest and Gingrich supporter who lives in Amherst. "He doesn't stand up there with 30-second sound bites. He has over 30 years of experience in the government. He studied these issues all his life."
Indeed, there was no lightning round of questions Monday night. Gingrich was not asked about his three marriages or his cooperation with Nancy Pelosi on climate change.
Gingrich saved perhaps his harshest criticism for Iran, which he said needed regime change.
"They've had a consistent pattern of being our enemies," he said. "I believe we cannot allow them to have a nuclear weapon. Therefore I believe we have to be for regime change."
Huntsman largely agreed, as he did all night. It was dry enough at times to prompt Huntsman to joke about putting one of his daughters to sleep.
Drew Cline, the opinion page editor for the New Hampshire Union Leader, perhaps summed it up best:
"This isn't a debate; it's a think tank panel. At this point, I'd heartily welcome Donald Trump."