MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — The Republican presidential contest executed a soft launch this weekend, with eager but unofficial contenders focusing all their criticisms on President Barack Obama at a New Hampshire dinner — and none on each other.
Eventually, of course, they will have to say whether they're really candidates. And they'll have to critique one another if they hope to pull away from the pack. But that can wait.
On Friday night in Manchester, five likely GOP contenders hacked away almost in unison at liberals, Democrats and Obama. They denounced taxes, vilified government regulations and promised to repeal the president's 2010 health care law.
Their differences were subtle and stylistic, not harsh and policy-driven.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney painted himself as a free-market champion and philosophical heir to the nation's founders. He went tieless, unlike the great majority of men in the ballroom, in his effort to exchange his corporate image for that of a weekend suburban dad.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty portrayed himself as a can-do achiever who reined in government in a Democratic-leaning state.
The fast-talking Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann said Congress should not raise the debt ceiling despite economists' warnings of dire consequences.
Two other hopefuls, former Sen. Rick Santorum and pizza magnate Herman Cain, called for deeply lower taxes and an embrace of the nation's religious heritage. Cain, a longshot, got the evening's biggest laugh with a story about his grandfather driving on rutted roads and urging him to be "a big potato," not a small potato.
The forum was a packed dinner hosted by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity in Manchester, the largest city in the first-primary state. Each candidate spoke for eight minutes and then fielded two questions. They did not address each other.
Those who skipped the event included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, real estate mogul Donald Trump and 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee.
The audience responded about equally to all five speakers. No candidate landed a knockout punch or made a serious gaffe.
Romney spoke in broad terms, portraying himself as a lover of freedom and capitalism, while saying Obama looks to Europe for inspiration and guidance. He said the nation's greatness "is being challenged by those who would make the country more like Europe."
"We got it right, they got it wrong," he said.
Romney said the health care law he signed in Massachusetts, which required all residents to obtain insurance, reduced unfair public subsidies of people who could afford their own care. He again said he never would impose the plan nationwide. And he called for repealing the Democrats' 2010 health law. That plan resembles his state plan in some ways.
Pawlenty praised congressional Republicans' efforts to revamp Medicare but stopped short of endorsing every detail of the House-passed plan. He said that the eligibility age for Medicare should be raised and that Medicaid should be handed to states as a block grant program. As for Social Security, he said wealthier people should not receive the same inflation adjustments that others receive.
Pawlenty apologized again for his past support of a "cap-and-trade" system to limit greenhouse gas emissions and allow businesses to trade the right to produce them.
"It was a mistake, it was stupid, and I'm sorry," he said.
But he boasted of cutting taxes, tying teachers' pay to performance and curbing personal injury lawsuits in his Democratic-leaning state. "If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere," Pawlenty said.
Bachmann, a tea party favorite, called for a litany of tax cuts and an end to government bailouts of ailing industries and subsidies of mortgages. She said she would auction Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae "to the highest bidder," starting at 50 cents.
In rapid-fire fashion, Bachmann said she would "zero out" the capital gains tax and alternative minimum tax. She would scrap the U.S. tax code, she said, "and adopt a national consumption tax."
'Let's get rid of what we've got and start over," Bachmann said.
"And I won't rest until Obamacare is finally repealed, and it will happen," she added. Until then, she said, "we shouldn't give one dime to put this Frankenstein into place."
Romney got a jump on his rivals, criticizing Obama's energy policies during an afternoon photo-op at a Manchester gas station.
"There's almost no silver bullet to do anything of significance in the country," Romney said after greeting a few people filling their cars at a Manchester gas station. But gas prices depend on current and future supplies and demands, he said.
"And the president's policies have made people very uncertain about the future of the supply of gasoline in this country, because we're not developing our own resources of oil, gas and coal in the way we should," he said.
Industry experts say there's almost nothing a president can do to hold down fuel prices over short periods. Obama says his policy of a balanced emphasis on petroleum production and newer, alternative fuels is the wisest course.
Friday's dinner honored Ovide Lamontagne, a tea party favorite in New Hampshire who unsuccessfully sought the GOP Senate nomination last year.
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