Republicans blast Obama, not each other

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) – The 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 Republicans criticized Obama as a failure on the economy and attacked his healthcare overhaul 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 as the contenders played nice with each other.

Romney defended the plan, which has become a lightning rod for conservative critics, as different from Obama’s healthcare overhaul 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.

The candidates also declined to join in criticism that has been leveled at Pawlenty’s economic plan, which relied on rarely achieved 5 percent growth to fund his tax cuts. Pawlenty said his critics had 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.

The nationally televised forum in New Hampshire included most of the top-tier contenders in the battle for the right to challenge Obama. The Democratic president leads the Republican hopefuls in most opinion polls. The election is in November 2012.

Romney 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.

Representative Michelle Bachmann, who had not entered the race yet, said during the debate she had filed the paperwork to formally join the Republican race for the White House.

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, former pizza executive Herman Cain and Representative Ron Paul.