By John Whitesides
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican White House contenders focused their attacks on President Barack Obama and refrained from attacking each other on Monday in their first major debate of the 2012 nominating race.
The seven Republican hopefuls criticized Obama as a failure on the economy and knocked his healthcare reform as a gross government intrusion, but sidestepped numerous chances to hit their party rivals in the face-to-face encounter.
"This president has failed, and he's failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy growing," said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who leads the Republican pack in opinion polls.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who on Sunday took a swipe at Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan and called it "Obamneycare," carefully avoided a direct challenge to Romney as the contenders played nice with each other.
Romney defended the plan, a precursor to Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul law that has become a lightning rod for conservative critics, and said it was different in part because it did not raise taxes and was state-based.
"If people don't like it in our state, they can change it. That's the nature of why states are the right place for this type of responsibility," Romney said.
Obama leads most opinion polls against potential Republican challengers in 2012, but his position has begun to slip in recent weeks as the economy struggles to recover.
The nationally televised forum in New Hampshire included most of the top-tier contenders for the Republican presidential nomination -- a battle for the right to challenge Obama, a Democrat. New Hampshire holds an important early contest on the road to the Republican nomination.
"Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama," Romney said.
'A DEFEATIST ATTITUDE'
The candidates declined to join in Democratic criticism of Pawlenty's economic plan for relying on a rarely achieved 5 percent growth to fund his tax cuts. Pawlenty accused his critics of a failure of ambition.
"This idea that we can't have 5 percent growth in America is hogwash. It's a defeatist attitude," he said.
Romney, who failed in a 2008 bid for the Republican nomination, is an uneasy front-runner in a group that has drawn complaints from some in the party for being weak.
"It was a very strong night for Mitt Romney," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Representative Michele Bachmann, who had not entered the race before Monday, said she had just filed the paperwork to formally run for president. Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who served as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama, also is expected to enter the race in the next few weeks.
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, also is still considering a potential run. She did not take part on Monday night.
The Republicans showed few policy differences during the debate. They mostly backed Representative Paul Ryan's budget proposal that would scale back the Medicare health insurance plan for the elderly and disabled, and did not support raising the debt ceiling without dramatic spending cuts.
"We're not that far apart on all the big issues," said former pizza executive Herman Cain.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had to apologize for criticizing Ryan's plan as he launched his campaign, said he supported it as "a general proposal" but would do some things differently. He warned Republicans to get public approval for the moves.
"If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you better slow down," Gingrich said.
The debate on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, was an early look at the contenders for the activists in the early-voting state who will play a critical role in the 2012 nominating battle.
The presidential election will be held in November 2012.
Romney, Bachmann and Gingrich skipped a lightly attended debate last month, but appeared on Monday with four contenders who participated in the first one -- former Senator Rick Santorum, Pawlenty, Cain and Representative Ron Paul.
Bachmann, a fiery conservative from Minnesota, has earned a following on cable TV news shows and among Tea Party activists with her outspoken condemnations of Obama and Washington insiders. She promised that Republicans would oust Obama in 2012.
"President Obama is a one-term president," she said.
Gingrich was not asked about last week's desertion by most of his senior campaign staff over disagreements on the future of his campaign.