MANCHESTER, N.H. — Together onstage for the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, the Republican field of candidates Monday took aim at President Obama, saying that despite trillions of dollars of spending and tax breaks, he has left the country in what one called “the Obama depression.”
From Democrats’ 2010 health care law to Mr. Obama’s energy and labor policies, Republicans said the president has gotten the economy — the biggest issue, according to voters — wrong.
“He didn’t create the recession, but he made it worse, and longer,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “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 going.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich described the Obama administration as an “anti-job, anti-business, anti-American-energy destructive force” and labeled the slump “the Obama depression.”
The surprise news of the night was from Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced she is officially in the race. Earlier, she had been exploring a run.
“As president of the United States, I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare,” said the three-term House member, who has introduced legislation to end both the health care law and the new financial-regulation law Mr. Obama signed.
The repeal pledge won general approval from the rest of the field, which repeatedly ganged up on Mr. Obama, at times even passing up chances to attack each other in favor of going after the president instead.
Monday marked the first time that Mr. Romney was onstage with his fellow Republicans. He officially joined the campaign earlier this month, and polls show him leading the Republican field and the best poised to go head to head with Mr. Obama next year.
But all seven Republicans on the stage chose to focus their fire on the White House more than on each other, arguing that Mr. Obama has bungled health care, has failed to create jobs and has embraced policies that have made government bigger rather than spur the economy.
When CNN anchorman John King, who moderated the debate at St. Anselm College here, tried to create dissonance between Mr. Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, both men demurred.
Mr. Pawlenty played down his earlier attack comparing the health care law Mr. Romney signed in Massachusetts to the national law Mr. Obama signed, coining the term “Obamneycare” on Sunday.
Pressed about the comment, Mr. Pawlenty ducked the question, saying that his comments were simply a “reflection of the president’s comments that he modeled” his health care plan after the program enacted in Massachusetts.
Asked about the Mr. Pawlenty’s remark, Mr. Romney repeated that his first step as president would be to repeal the president’s health care plan and grant waivers to every state that wants to opt out of the program.
“My guess is, the president is going to eat those words,” Mr. Romney said, going on to say he would be the ideal person to take the health care debate to Mr. Obama and addressed a rhetorical question at him.
“If in fact you looked at what we were doing in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call?” Mr. Romney asked, saying he would have told the president that Mr. Obama’s health care plan would not work.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, an ardent pro-lifer, also passed up an opportunity to attack Mr. Romney not taking Mr. King’s invitation to attack the former Massachusetts governor, who once was pro-choice, as a flip-flopper.
Rounding out the candidates were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former corporate executive Herman Cain.
Noticeably absent from the event were some of those who have left the door open to a possible bid; namely, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson also was missing, after he did not receive an invitation to participate from CNN.
The fast-moving two-hour debate saw Mrs. Bachmann pledge that she wouldn’t push New Hampshire to repeal the state’s gay-marriage law, saying, “I am running for president of the United States” and that judging state legislation wasn’t her role.
She also joined most of her colleagues in voicing her support of a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Mr. Cain and the rest of the field voiced support for right-to-work legislation.
Mr. Paul distanced himself from the rest of the group by saying he’d pull the troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq as soon as possible to save money and because “our national security is not enhanced by our presence there.”
“I wouldn’t wait for my generals,” Mr. Paul said, alluding to the stances of some of the others on the stage. “I’m the commander in chief. I tell the generals what to do.”
While more cautious about taking advice from his generals, Mr. Romney was critical of what he characterized as nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. “Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban,” Mr. Romney said.
Mrs. Bachmann’s answer on Libya also indicated a move on the Republican field’s part more towards Mr. Paul’s non-interventionist stance, on which he was virtually alone in 2008.
“The president was not leading when it came to Libya,” Mrs. Bachmann said, noting with scorn in her voice that Mr. Obama had left leadership of the operation to France.
Mr. Pawlenty went further than the Libya war and its multinational character, taking on the entire Obama worldview, saying the president was a “declinist” and someone who sees America “as one of equals around the world,” rather than a believer in American exceptionalism.
The two-hour event kicked off with a brief photo shoot, including some awkward-looking exchanges between the candidates. They were given a brief one-minute chance at the start of the broadcast to introduce themselves to voters. Every candidate mentioned his family and children — except for Mr. Gingrich, whose marital troubles have dogged him for years and likely will continue to do so.
Mr. Gingrich also passed on an opportunity to dial back his description of the House Republicans’ plan to reshape Medicare as “right-wing social engineering,” claiming that his comments were taken out of context.
“If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, then maybe it’s not a good idea,” he said.
Sponsored by CNN, the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper and WMUR-TV, the debate was billed as a town-hall style event because the candidates took questions directly from voters, who wanted to know where they stood on the president’s health care plan and what they planned to do to make a dent in the high unemployment rate.
“I have the experience, the leadership and results to lead it to a better place,” Mr. Pawlenty said.
Mr. Paul said he was the “champion of liberty” and defender of the Constitution, while Mr. Cain said he was a “problem-solver with over 40 years of business experience.”
More than anything else, it served as the unofficial kickoff to the 2012 campaign in the Granite State, which is home to the first-in-the-nation primary and where voters tend to think pocketbook issues trump all others at the ballot box.
It also provided the lesser-known faces in the field with a golden opportunity to introduce themselves to a national audience, while rolling out the reasons why they’re best equipped to make Mr. Obama a one-term president and to get the nation’s financial house back in order.
In lighter moments, CNN asked the candidates quick questions about personal preference in what Mr. King called a bid to humanize the candidates.
Mr. Cain, a former pizza magnate, was asked whether he preferred thin-crust or deep-dish and said emphatically, after a pregnant pause, “deep-dish.” However, Mrs. Bachmann waffled on her answer about two legendary singers, before eventually deciding she preferred Elvis Presley over Johnny Cash.
Mr. Romney answered Mr. King’s question by saying he preferred spicy wings over mild, but then he took the opportunity to be the bearer of good sporting news in the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals to the New England audience: “By the way, Bruins are up 4-0.”