MANCHESTER, N.H. – It sure looked and felt like the Republican presidential contest was under way Friday in the first-primary state of New Hampshire, even if the politicians on stage remained coy about their expected candidacies.
Five possible contenders, including three considered in the top tier, hacked away at President Barack Obama before enthusiastic conservatives, but aimed no barbs at each other. All of them deplored higher taxes, government regulations and Obama's 2010 health care law. They generally differed more on style than policy, a tactic that may change in coming months.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty portrayed himself as a can-do achiever who reined in government in a Democratic-leaning state.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney painted himself as a free-market champion and philosophical heir to the nation's founders.
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann said Congress should not raise the debt ceiling despite economists' warnings of dire consequences.
The occasion was a packed dinner hosted by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity in Manchester, the state's largest city. Each candidate spoke for eight minutes and then fielded two questions. They did not address each other.
The audience responded about equally to all five speakers, and no candidate landed a knockout punch or made a serious gaffe. It was an affair with little intra-party squabbling. Obama and congressional Democrats were the constant target.
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. It was a slightly stronger defense than he often gives. But Romney 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 the eligibility age for Medicare should be raised, and 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.
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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