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Gingrich and Huntsman nod and smile through sleepy debate

GOFFSTOWN N.H.-- It might go down in history as the friendliest debate of the 2012 season. Monday's Lincoln-Douglas style debate between Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingirch was supposed to be an in-depth back-and-forth discussion focused on foreign policy issues and national security, but the candidates skipped the sparring and instead spent more than 90 minutes reiterating and flattering each other's positions on topics ranging from China to Iran. They even put a few people to sleep.

Among the subjects Huntsman and Gingrich agreed upon was the format of televised debates this campaign cycle.

Gingrich said he is bothered by "the absence of a serious discussion about the nature of the world" in the campaign and debates so far.

"We’re a country in enormous trouble. And we need leaders who are willing to talk to people at a sophisticated level.  This is what we should have a lot more of because this is substantive. This is not a Hollywood game. This is not a reality show. This is reality," Gingrich said.

Huntsman quipped, "I can't wait to compare and contrast this format with the Donald Trump debate." The former Utah governor was excluded from the most recent Iowa GOP debate, after he failed to meet the minimum polling requirements and declined an invitation to the NewsMax/Trump debate which Gingrich has said he will attend.

With no buzzers in sight, the candidates steered clear of soundbites and meandered through policy topics in reasonable detail, often speaking for more than 5 minutes straight at a time. Expanding on their stump speeches, Gingrich and Huntsman avoided pointing out potential policy differences despite the fact that they hold different positions.

Midway through the debate, Gingrich predicted that a nuclear-capable Iran could "mean for all practical puposes virtually the end of Judaism on the planet." Gingrich said, "We're going to replace their regime. We're ideally going to do it non-militarily."

Huntsman nodded. "I agree with a lot of what the speaker has put forward on Iran," he said but did not advocate regime change.

"All options need to be on the table" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Huntsman said, echoing his stump speech.

Huntsman and Gingrich have also differed on their view of Libya, which Huntsman softly pointed out to the audience, "I know Newt and I might disagree a little bit on that."

But again, no contrast was drawn. When Huntsman called American intervention in Libya a mistake, Gingrich did not engage him.

In the past, Gingrich has opposed intervention in Libya but more recently recommended the U.S. remove Moammar Gadhafi from power. When Huntsman concluded his position, Gingrich complimented Huntsman for making "a very important point" but then pivoted to criticize President Obama for dumping Egypt's long-time leader Hosni Mubarak "in an unceremonious way."

The former Speaker of the House and former Utah governor's long-winded volley of softballs meant that only 5 of the 10 planned topics were covered. In fact, their uneventful exchange put more than a few audience members and reporters to sleep.

When Huntsman was asked by timekeeper Pat Griffin if he wanted to expand on an answer given by Gingrich on the Middle East, Huntsman pointed into the audience at his young daughter Gracie Mei and said, "Well, I can see my daughter nodding off over there, which means I've already gone on too long, anyway."

As the audience laughed, Gingrich jumped in. "I just want to say -- in her defense -- she was nodding while I spoke."

For Huntsman, the debate with front-runner Gingrich seemed like a missed opportunity to distinguish himself in a national nomination race in which he remains in the low single digits.

When asked by NBC News if he believed he won the debate vis-a-vis Gingrich, Huntsman adhered to the debate's polite tone.

"I'd have to say the winners would really have to be the American people," he told reporters. Huntsman went on to challenge Mitt Romney to a similar format ahead of the January 10 New Hampshire primary.