By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press
MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - With Republican activists saying they finally feel the 2012 presidential contest is under way, five potential GOP candidates used one stage in New Hampshire Friday to chastise President Barack Obama and call for lower taxes and less regulation.
They all denounced Obama's health care law and his overall approach to government, and they aimed no barbs at one another. 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.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum and pizza magnate Herman Cain called for deeply lower taxes and an embrace of the nation's religious heritage.
The occasion was a packed dinner hosted by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity in Manchester, the largest city in the state that hosts the first presidential primary. Each candidate spoke for eight minutes and then fielded two questions. They did not address each other.
Romney spoke in broad terms, portraying himself as a lover of freedom and capitalism, while saying Obama looks to Europe for inspiration and guidance.
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. But he 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 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.
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.
"And I won't rest until Obamacare is finally repealed, and it will happen," Bachmann said.
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.