By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Mindful of the political risks, most Republican presidential hopefuls treaded gingerly after House Republicans unveiled a budget plan that would slash federal spending by about $5 trillion over 10 years while revamping health programs for the elderly and poor.
Several, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, praised the budget's sponsor, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, but stopped short of fully endorsing the blueprint and didn't indicate whether they backed the massive changes in Medicare and Medicaid. Others, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were silent on the plan.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a former White House budget director, stood out from the pack with strong support for a proposal he called "the first serious proposal produced by either party to deal with the overriding issue of our time." In a statement, he added: "Anyone criticizing this plan without offering a specific and equally bold program of his own has failed in the public duty to be honest and clear with Americans about the gravest danger we are facing together."
There's a reason few other hopefuls were eager to talk about it: The plan, unveiled Tuesday, could rile a pivotal constituency, millions of senior citizens who depend on the government-run health care programs. Also, the proposal is simply the starting point of a long fight over the budget for next federal fiscal year, which begins in October, and candidates probably are wary about fully embracing something that ultimately won't become law.
"It's doubtful the House's proposal will be passed in its current form and it's unlikely that this one proposal will be the ultimate solution to all of our economic problems," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee acknowledged on his blog, calling the proposal "a start" that he supports.
The contenders had little choice but to say something.
Polls show that the federal deficit and debt are top issues with the general electorate as well as GOP primary voters. Ignoring Ryan's plan altogether could anger conservative voters and tea party activists pressing for less spending and smaller government. The likely candidates are all but certain to be asked about the proposal as they campaign in the early nominating states; GOP primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - who take their jobs of vetting candidates seriously - will demand specific answers.
But specifics were hard to come by.
"Rep. Ryan's budget recognizes the problem with government: too much spending without fiscal responsibility," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is likely to enter the presidential race in the coming weeks, said in a Twitter message.
He elaborated in a letter that was co-signed with other Republican Governors Association leaders; it applauded the effort to give states more control of health care programs.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the lone likely presidential contender with a vote on the budget, said she looked forward to reviewing the full budget proposal and that "it is time to put our nation on a sustainable fiscal path."
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor expected to make a second White House run, was almost as brief in a statement. It was sent only to reporters who inquired about his position.
"I applaud Rep. Paul Ryan for recognizing the looming financial crisis that faces our nation and for the creative and bold thinking that he brings to the debate. He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control," Romney said.
But does he back the approach? Romney pointed to his 300-page book for a detailed version of how he would govern.
Pawlenty released a statement on the plan before House Republicans unveiled it at a news conference. He called Ryan a leader - and then took the opportunity to bash the Democrat he hopes to challenge, saying, "President Obama has failed to lead and make tough choices his entire time in the White House."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in with a Twitter posting: "There is hope! Serious & necessary leadership rolls out serious & necessary reform proposal. Good start." She directed readers to a column she wrote in December that praised Ryan.
Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum seemed willing to embrace the plan. But he only focused on part of it, saying, "The Republicans' approach to reforming Medicare is right on target to streamline the program, reduce waste and allow future Medicare beneficiaries to have more of a say in the needs of their benefits with a market."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)