GOP presidential hopefuls court New Hampshire voters

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2011 

MANCHSTER, N.H. _Potential Republican presidential candidates drew only mild applause Friday from conservative activists, as most of the hopefuls insisted that they’d take bold, perhaps politically risky steps to revive the ailing American economy and get rid of the 2010 federal health care law.

The 75-minute “Presidential Summit on Spending & Job Creation,” sponsored by the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation, attracted about 600 GOP insiders to the first serious forum of the 2012 GOP campaign. The tone of the event was stark evidence that Republicans are taking their time and taking serious looks at their choices as they head into an election year when Obama looks increasingly vulnerable.

The GOP choice in this state usually carries special weight, as New Hampshire traditionally holds the nation’s first presidential primary and gives winners instant credibility and momentum. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is considered the frontrunner here, a neighboring state, a status that got a boost this week when a new WMUR/Granite State poll found him beating Obama, 50-43 percent, among New Hampshire voters. Obama, whose approval rating in the state has sunk to 44 percent, won New Hampshire in the 2008 general election. The poll, taken April 15-26, surveyed 504 people. Margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.

Romney, who’s not considered a favorite of mainstream GOP conservatives, tried hard here Friday night to paint himself as an easy fit with this crowd, spending most of his time professing his devotion to family and country, and firing away at Obama.

“It’s broken my heart,” he said of the president’s stewardship of the economy.

Romney visited a Manchester gasoline station earlier in the day, talking to customers. Friday night, he offered his remedy to what’s troubling them: “If you want to see gasoline prices brought down, you have to increase supply…if we start drilling, and use our natural gas…and our oil and our coal and our renewable resources, we can change supply and demand long term. And that means exploring more at home, not sending dollars to “bad guys around the world.”

Romney, though, is dogged by his health care history. As governor, he signed into law in 2006 a requirement that almost everyone in Massachusetts obtain coverage, a law widely viewed as a model for the federal health care plan championed by Obama and the Democrats in Congress that most Republicans loathe.

Romney was asked about the Massachusetts law Friday. “It may not be perfect. It is not perfect,” he said. If he could debate Obama, Romney said, he’d ask him, “Mr. President why didn’t you call me and ask how it worked?”

Romney added that on the first day of his presidency, he’d order officials to permit waivers from the 2010 national health care law “in all 50 states.” The crowd gave him only mild applause.

The audience was also polite but restrained toward former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who suggested controlling runaway federak spending by making two politically risky changes to Social Security. He’d gradually raise the retirement age for new entrants, and limit the cost of living increase for wealthier recipients.

"I don’t like means testing as a philosophical matter,” Pawlenty said, but “it’s time we look the American people in the eye and say, ‘if you’re wealthy, you’re not going to get as a big (an increase).’”

The only candidate who drew a burst or two of enthusiasm was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. She vowed to cut the top income tax rate, now 35 percent, to 20 percent, and pledged to work for “the mother of all repeal bills.”

While she didn’t detail all that she wants repealed, her list includes the health care law as well as “government rules and regulations that kill American job growth.”

Two other conservative favorites drew some support. Businessman Herman Cain wants to privatize Social Security and “cut, cut, cut” the budget.

And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spoke largely in philosophical terms. “America was founded great,” he said. “It wasn’t great because some politicians gave us stuff.”

He drew applause when blasting “a group of people in Washington, D.C. designing things for us.” He said he’d try to repeal the 2010 health care law “first and foremost out of the box.” And he’d helped calm energy markets with support to “drill, baby, drill” more for oil and natural gas.

Not all potential GOP candidates appeared; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman and others were not president.

Those who were present avoided criticizing one another. Pawlenty took a friendly swipe at Romney, recalling that Massachusetts, where Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007, twice gave its electoral votes to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, so maybe it wasn’t so hard for a Republican to govern.

“Minnesota never did” go for Reagan, Pawlenty said, yet he flourished as a Republican governor in the 2000s. Pawlenty failed to mention that in those 1980s elections, Democrat Walter Mondale, a popular state figure, was on the ticket opposing Reagan. ON THE WEB:

New Hampshire demographic profile

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