Jim Cole  /  AP
Possible 2012 presidential hopeful, former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts speaks during a dinner sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, Friday.
By
updated 4/30/2011 8:45:16 AM ET 2011-04-30T12:45:16

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.

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Their differences were subtle and stylistic, not harsh and policy-driven.

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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.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

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.

'Big potato'
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.

'Stupid' mistake
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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Does Gary Johnson have a shot in 2012?

  1. Closed captioning of: Does Gary Johnson have a shot in 2012?

    >>> back to politics, and the first republican presidential debate is a week away.

    >> believe it or not.

    >> greenville, south carolina . former minnesota governor tim pawlenty and ron paul will appear at a tea party rally ahead of the debate that will be headlined by governor haley.

    >> the candidate called the most libertarian in america, no contest, and the tea party before rick santelli be there? we'll ask now. former new mexico governor who jumped into the race, governor johnson, why are you running as a republican? why aren't you running for the nomination of the libertarian party ?

    >> well, chuck, i've been a republican my entire life and got to serve two ter terms as a governor of mu mexico in a state that's 2 - 1 democrat. as republican as they are libertarian, i'm out here in a contest to try and be the spokesperson for the republican party .

    >> well, i don't have to show you the polls. here's the latest one from gallup. a long list of potential candidates and, sir, you're at the bottom of it. less than 1%. what are you hoping to accomplish here?

    >> well, i'm in this to actually win the race, and i understand the realities. i accept the realities. you know, i think it's a gar contest, and -- a fair contest and i understand the rights. it is corollary to my running for governor of new mexico where the primary was in june and in february of the same year i was at 2% of the republican vote then. so i understand the process. i have no complaints with the process. thanks for having me on your show here, because this might just help out. you know, this might jump it another, i don't know, 1.01%. whos to say?

    >> governor, the reason i ask, the libertarian question and people that aren't familiar with your background, you're very much a purist as far as when it comes to being a libertarian conservative , and you don't want government involved in any parts of life, whether it has to do with social issues or fiscal issues. you know, the republican party of today is dominated by a lot of social conservatives . how can you sell a program that says, you know what? legalize marijuana, not going to talk about abortion. gay rights , you know, not going to touch any of those issues. this is not a place government should be. how do you sell that to the republican party of south carolina ?

    >> well, this is a contest. i think that i might speak on behalf of half of republicans right now. but if you don't give them this option, if you don't give them this checkoff, why, they're going to check off somebody for the rest of world that's going to be the voice ever the republican party , and i am offering an alternative here and i would just -- i never apply labels to myself, chuck. i just don't do it. i think that -- i think perhaps this is very republican and we'll see. i get to, like i say, i'm engaged in this contest and first and foremost this country is bankrupt. i think we're on the verge of a financial collapse and that's in lieu of the fact we have $14 trillion in debt of which we just can't repay given the deficit this year, last year, the year before, years going forward, and i don't put the current administration at fault for that. i think both parties share in that, because when republicans controlled both houses of congress and the presidency, they passed the prescription health care benefit and ran up record deficits at that time, too. it's really a shared responsibility for where we've gotten to.

    >> quickly, you said in the past that every time you pass a law you take a bite out of freedom. what are the top two or three laws you would want to get rid of right away?

    >> well, when you look at government and what government does, if i could just use education as an example. what would be the best thing that the federal government could do when it comes to education nationwide? i think it would be to abolish the federal department of education , giving states back the ability, 50 laboratories of innovation, something i'll talk about in my campaign, has this country was designed for. 50 laboratories of innovation when it came to education would genuinely come up with best practices . there would, of course, be failure. best practices get emulated, failure avoided. washington knows best, top-down, doesn't work. and the federal government gives the states about 11 cents out of every dollar states spend for education but it comes with 16 cents worth of strings attached. it's really a negative to take federal money. don't give the states any money, but do away with the strings and the mandates and you know what? we'd see education improve dramatically in this country.

    >> all right. former new mexico governor gary johnson . a new republican candidate for president. wanting to have a policy and ideological debate inside the party. good luck to you. we'll be watching.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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