Republican hopefuls face off - without poll leader Donald Trump
"In Iowa they pick corn, in New Hampshire we pick candidates," the audience was told as they prepared to hear 14 Republicans hoping to be the party's standard-bearer next year.
The one obvious absentee was Donald Trump, the self-declared non-debater who, much to the alarm of the party's hierarchy, appears to be cementing his status as a trailblazer in the polls.
Banner-waving supporters set up camp outside St Anselm College in Manchester and home of the Institute of Politics.
Outside the venue, Chris Christie had the backing of a good half-dozen placards, while a Ben Carson supporter drove around the campus in a small van to demonstrate his support.
A dissident brass band also pitched up, giving a musical message of opposition playing such classics as 'Money' - the Barrett Strong hit, later covered by the Beatles.
There was a lot of invoking of Ronald Reagan by the candidates from all wings of the party. One, Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, even hailed Margaret Thatcher as an example to follow.
All on the stage - and senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who participated via satellite link from Washington - know that their campaigns will be fatally wounded if they perform badly in the New Hampshire Primary and Iowa Caucus.
With 14 participants, the format was always going to be unwieldy. Each faced about five minutes of questioning with the opportunity for a closing statement.
For Rick Perry, the Texas governor, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the key issue was immigration.
"The will to secure the border will reside in the Oval Office," Mr Perry said. Mr Santorum took an even tougher line: "Thirty-five million people have come into this country legally and illegally. I am the only candidate calling for securing the border and a 25pc reduction in unskilled labour coming in. I am the person standing up for the American worker."
For Lindsey Graham, the hawkish South Carolina senator, the task was to get across his message that he will be tougher than his rivals on America's foes.
In a generally strong performance, he was arguably the most successful in mastering the concise soundbite and self-deprecating joke.
"Here is my economic policy and foreign policy. A clenched fist and an open hand," he said.
For Senator Ted Cruz of Texas the Iran deal was a catastrophe.
"If this deal goes through, the Obama administration will become the world's leading financier of global terrorism."
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, continued his attack on Obama's flagship Affordable Care Act. "Obamacare flies in the face of wh at we are as a nation," he said.
Jeb Bush focused on national security in the wake of the lone-wolf attacks in the US. "I think we have lowered our guard a bit." In a scarcely veiled dig at his libertarian rival Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, he called for measures to be "reinvigorated".
Mr Paul, who has attacked the mass security surveillance, remained unrepentant.
"We should collect more information on terrorists and less on innocent American citizens. I am a constitutional conservative and believe the Government should leave the individual alone," he said.
Otherwise the main candidates' pitch was how they would slash government spending if they reach the White House.
Governor Scott Walker, whose draconian spending cuts in Wisconsin led to a bruising battle with the unions, tried to convince his audience he could do the same thing in Washington. (© Daily Telegraph London)