(Updates with comments from Boehner in 21st-22nd paragraphs.)
June 14 (Bloomberg) -- Seven Republican presidential candidates bashed President Barack Obama’s economic record at the campaign season’s first major debate yesterday, spotlighting the issue likely to define the 2012 race while dueling to distinguish themselves in the party’s crowded field.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney stressed his opposition to the federal health-care law even as he defended a similar state measure he helped to enact. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty defended his economic plan, which presumes a high U.S. economic growth rate. U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who at the debate’s start was the only participant yet to announce a presidential bid, used the occasion to say that she would run.
There was little talk during the session in New Hampshire of an issue that is gripping Washington: a forthcoming vote on boosting the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, a move that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says will be needed by Aug. 2 to avoid an unprecedented default. Romney said the limit won’t be raised unless Obama lays out a plan to balance the budget. Bachmann noted that she has already voted once not to raise the debt ceiling, during a mostly symbolic House vote May 31, “and unless there are serious cuts, I can’t” support upping the cap.
As they came together in the state that typically hosts the nation’s first presidential campaign primary, the Republicans focused nearly all their fire on Obama, rather than on each other. They blamed the president for a U.S. jobless rate that was 9.1 percent last month, panned the health-care measure he pushed through Congress as a burdensome mess, and criticized his administration for imposing regulations that they said are killing jobs.
“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 Romney, the front-runner among Republican-leaning voters in several national polls. He came into the debate expecting to be targeted by his rivals, but for the most part they passed on opportunities to do so.
Pawlenty branded Obama “a declinist” in his economic policies.
Bachmann said Republicans can tell a “great story” about turning the economy around, while Obama’s “report card right now has a big failing grade on it.”
Pawlenty, asked to defend a plan he released last week that includes a goal of a 5 percent annual economic growth rate, said “it’s a defeatist attitude” to say the nation can’t achieve the figure -- one that has rarely been reached in the post-World War II era.
“I don’t accept this notion that we’re going to be average or anemic,” he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, seeking to rebound from a mass resignation of top campaign staff members last week, said the nation needs “a new president to end the Obama depression.”
The debate, sponsored by the CNN cable network, local television station WMUR and the New Hampshire Union Leader, occurred as economic data suggest that the nation’s recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s is faltering amid continued unemployment -- giving Republicans a cudgel to wield against Obama.
Payrolls grew at the slowest pace in eight months in May, according to Labor Department figures released June 3, while other data show that manufacturing has slowed.
Pawlenty declined during the debate to repeat a criticism of Romney he debuted over the weekend, when he jabbed the former Massachusetts governor on parallels between the state health- care law he helped to enact and the similar national measure Obama pushed through Congress last year, which Republicans routinely deride as “Obamacare.” The president patterned his plan “after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare,” Pawlenty said June 12 on “Fox News Sunday.”
Still, Pawlenty contrasted his approach with Romney’s last night, suggesting that his record positioned him better to challenge Obama on health care.
“In order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you have to be able to show you have a better plan and different plan,” he said.
Romney said he would repeal the national measure if elected president, adding, “I can’t wait to debate” Obama on the issue in the general election.
Gingrich, who drew fire from other Republicans last month for publicly criticizing the budget plan by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that would privatize Medicare, toiled to explain his comment. He said that while he supports the Ryan proposal -- which he had called “radical change” and “social engineering” during a May appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” -- he was saying that congressional Republicans shouldn’t push it through, because it’s unpopular with voters.
“If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea,” Gingrich said.
Pawlenty and three others on last night’s stage -- U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Herman Cain, a former talk radio host and onetime chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza -- had previously squared off in a May 5 debate in South Carolina.
Bachmann, who for months has been laying the groundwork for a presidential run, announced her intent to follow through as last night’s debate started. “I filed my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency today,” she said. Her filing with the Federal Election Commission allows Bachmann to begin fundraising and other organizational efforts for a presidential bid. She said she would “very soon” formally announce her candidacy.
Bachmann’s debate performance won praise from House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. “I think she did a really good job last night,” Boehner told reporters in Washington today. “I think she’s a bright member of our caucus.”
In a nod to Paul, as well, Boehner said, “I think my colleagues in the House that are in this race, I think they’ve got as good a shot as anybody else.”
Defense policy was one of the few areas that exposed rifts among the candidates.
Following the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. commando raid in Pakistan last month, Romney said of Afghanistan, “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals.”
Paul said U.S. troops should withdraw from that conflict and all the others, regardless of military recommendations.
‘Bring Them Home’
“I wouldn’t wait for my generals. I’m the commander in chief. I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do. And I’d bring them home as quickly as possible,” Paul said, adding that doing so “could save hundreds of billions of dollars.”
Invoking the Sept. 11 attacks, Pawlenty said he would authorize bombing Yemen if doing so were necessary to guard against terrorist assaults on the U.S.
“If there are individuals I have intelligence on or groups in Yemen that present a threat to our security interests in that region or to the United States of America, you can bet they’ll hear from me, and we’ll continue those bombings,” he said.
The debate underscored the degree to which the grass-roots anti-government refrain popular with Tea Party activists has had an impact on the Republican Party, long a traditional ally of business.
“We need to get the government out of crony capitalism. We have this alliance between big government, big unions and certain big bailout businesses,” Pawlenty said. “We had politicians in Congress trying to micromanage the housing market, and they created a bubble and they created a mess.”
Blame the Fed
Paul, who has made his drive to abolish the Federal Reserve his signature issue, said the central bank was directly responsible for the nation’s economic woes. “We got in the trouble because we had a financial bubble, and it’s caused by the Federal Reserve,” he said.
Bachmann, casting herself as a candidate willing to take on other Republicans when necessary, said the Tea Party movement had been “wrongly and grossly portrayed” and was more diverse than it has been depicted by the media.
“The Tea Party is really made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life. People who are libertarians, Republicans,” she said. “It’s a wide swath of America coming together.”
Differences were slight among the candidates on social issues, with all opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Romney, who previously supported abortion rights, was asked to defend his record on the issue.
In his failed 1994 bid to unseat Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, Romney declared that abortion should be “safe and legal.” He has since said that he has a different view.
“I believe people understand that I’m firmly pro-life,” said Romney. The other candidates declined to attack his record on that issue, declaring it “case closed.”
Notable by her absence from the stage was Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, who late last month conducted an attention-grabbing family sightseeing bus tour of East Coast while insisting that she hadn’t decided whether to run.
Also offstage yet inching closer to a presidential bid is Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor who recently stepped down as Obama’s ambassador to China. In a weekend interview on Bloomberg Television, he said he is “moving in that direction” and has “got about all the boxes checked” toward officially entering the race. Today, a Huntsman aide said the candidacy announcement would occur June 21 in a state park in New Jersey with the Statute of Liberty in the backgropund.
--With assistance from Kathleen Hunter in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Leslie Hoffecker
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Manchester, New Hampshire, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Washington at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org