Republican White House contenders focused their attacks on President Barack Obama and refrained from attacking each other on Monday in their first major debate of the 2012 nominating race.
The seven Republican hopefuls criticized Obama as a failure on the economy and knocked his healthcare reform as a gross government intrusion, but sidestepped numerous chances to hit their party rivals in the face-to-face encounter.
"This president has failed, and he's failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy growing," said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who leads the Republican pack in opinion polls.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who on Sunday took a swipe at Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan and called it "Obamneycare," carefully avoided a direct challenge to Romney as the contenders played nice with each other.
Romney defended the plan, a precursor to Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul law that has become a lightning rod for conservative critics, and said it was different in part because it did not raise taxes and was state-based.
"If people don't like it in our state, they can change it. That's the nature of why states are the right place for this type of responsibility," Romney said.
Obama leads most opinion polls against potential Republican challengers in 2012, but his position has begun to slip in recent weeks as the U.S. economy struggles to recover.
The nationally televised forum in New Hampshire included most of the top-tier contenders for the Republican presidential nomination -- a battle for the right to challenge Obama, a Democrat. New Hampshire holds an important early contest on the road to the Republican nomination. "Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama," Romney said.
The candidates declined to join in Democratic criticism of Pawlenty's economic plan for relying on a rarely achieved 5 percent growth to fund his tax cuts. Pawlenty accused his critics of a failure of ambition. "This idea that we can't have 5 percent growth in America is hogwash. It's a defeatist attitude," he said.
Romney, who failed in a 2008 bid for the Republican nomination, leads the Republican pack in most polls but is an uneasy front-runner in a group that has drawn complaints from some in the party for being a weak field.
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, who had not entered the race before Monday, said she had just filed the paperwork to formally run for president. Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who served as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama, also is expected to enter the race in the next few weeks.
The Republicans showed few policy differences during the debate. They mostly backed Representative Paul Ryan's budget proposal that would scale back the Medicare health insurance plan for the elderly and disabled, and did not support raising the debt ceiling without dramatic spending cuts. "We're not that far apart on all the big issues," said former pizza executive Herman Cain.
The debate on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, was an early look at the contenders for the activists in the early-voting state who will play a critical role in the 2012 nominating battle. The presidential election will be held in November 2012.
Romney, Bachmann and Newt Gingrich skipped a lightly attended debate last month, but appeared on Monday with four contenders who participated in the first one - former Senator Rick Santorum, Pawlenty, Cain and U.S. Representative Ron Paul.
Bachmann, a fiery conservative from Minnesota, has earned a following on cable TV news shows and among Tea Party activists with her outspoken condemnations of Obama and Washington insiders. She promised that Republicans would oust Obama in .2012"President Obama is a one-term president," she said.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, was not asked about last week's desertion by most of his senior campaign staff over disagreements on the future of his campaign.
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