MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Republican White House hopefuls assailed President Barack Obama's handling of the economy from the opening moments of their first major debate of the campaign season last night and pledged emphatically to repeal the administration's year-old health care law.
"When 14 million Americans are out of work we need a new president to end the Obama Depression," declared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the first among seven contenders on stage to criticize the president's economic policies.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, invited as an unannounced contender for the 2012 nomination, used the occasion to announce she had filed papers earlier in the day to run -- a disclosure in keeping with a feisty style she has employed since her election to Congress.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum accused Obama of pursuing "oppressive policies" that have shackled the economy.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty labeled Obama a "declinist" who views America "as one of equals around the world," rather than a special nation.
"If Brazil can have 5 percent growth, if China can have 5 percent growth, then America can have 5 percent growth," he added, shrugging off criticism that his own economic projections were impossibly rosy.
Businessman Herman Cain, a political novice, called for eliminating the capital gains tax as a way to stimulate job creation.
Said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the seventh contender on the stage: "As long as we are running a program that deliberately weakens our currency, our jobs will go overseas. And that's what's happening." Pawlenty, sharing a stage with Romney, at first sidestepped a chance to repeat his recent criticism of the Massachusetts state health care law that Romney signed as governor. It includes a requirement for residents to purchase coverage, a forerunner of the "individual mandate" that conservatives loathe in the new federal law.
"My using 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments," Pawlenty said, referring to a word he coined in a Sunday interview.
Romney, who first sought the nomination in 2008, was the nominal front-runner. But the public opinion polls that made him so are notoriously unreliable at this point in the campaign, when relatively few voters have begun to familiarize themselves with their choices.
Nor can the polls predict the television commercials as yet un-run, or the other events that make a nominating campaign so unpredictable.