GOP Candidates Flirt With N.H. Voters

Five potential Republican candidates for president shared a stage Friday night in Manchester, N.H. Their agenda was jobs, the economy and courting core GOP activists before the state holds its first-in-the-nation primary early in 2012. Josh Rogers of New Hampshire Public Radio reports.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

To politics now. Five potential candidates for president shared a stage last night in Manchester, New Hampshire. Their agenda was jobs, the economy and courting core Republican activists before the state holds its first-in-the-nation primary in early 2012.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.

JOSH ROGERS: To say the audience at the first major cattle call for the 2012 New Hampshire primary was primed for a blunt anti-government talk may be an understatement. Ray Shakir traveled more than 100 miles to the Americans for Prosperity Forum, and he was not there to hear niceties.

Mr. RAY SHAKIR: I want to hear somebody that's like Trump but not Trump, you know what I'm saying to you?

ROGERS: What, somebody who's brash?

Mr. SHAKIR: I want to hear somebody who tells it like it is.

ROGERS: Donald Trump didn't make this event, but the candidates who did were just as unsparing in dishing out the red meat.

Former Governor TIM PAWLENTY (Republican, Minnesota): Get the government off my back.

ROGERS: Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was the first on stage and he laced his remarks with boasts of his intransigence.

Gov. PAWLENTY: I had the first government shutdown under my watch in Minnesota in a 150-year history of the state. I set a record for vetoes in my state's single season and one of the most in history.

ROGERS: But Pawlenty also recanted a past stance from his days in his state's corner office - his support for cap and trade. To applause, he called it stupid.

Front-running Mitt Romney didn't go that far in recalling Massachusetts's mandatory insurance requirement, the plan that later became a model for the national health law and a lightning rod for both President Obama and Romney himself.

Former Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts): Let me tell you this: if and when I have the occasion to debate President Obama, I'm going to ask him this question: Mr. President, why didn't you call me and ask how it worked? Ours was an experiment. Some parts didn't work. His plan will not work. It will bankrupt us. It is absolutely wrong. It's unconstitutional. It's bad policy.

ROGERS: The famously formal Romney went tieless at the podium and his unbuttoned approach veered toward the edge when he spoke of how he planned to turn the nation's economic challenges against the president.

Gov. ROMNEY: Families are having a hard time making ends meet. So, we're going to talk about that and housing foreclosures and bankruptcies and higher taxation. We're going to hang him with that, so to speak, metaphorically - with -with - you have to be careful these days. I've learned that.

ROGERS: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, meanwhile, said the president treats his fellow Americans with condescension. He pointed to Mr. Obama's energy policies as a prime example.

Former Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): He mocked Sarah Palin and John McCain and others from the last election who were talking about "drill, baby, drill." Think about what he said. The answer is not supply; it's just demand. He does believe you're that stupid.

ROGERS: Tea Party favorites Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain offered the night's most detailed policy prescriptions. Both suggested sweeping changes mostly on the tax front - Cain in a booming baritone.

Mr. HERMAN CAIN: Take the capital gains tax rate to zero.

ROGERS: Michele Bachmann agreed with Cain on that and she also proposed getting rid of the inheritance tax and scrapping the income tax for a flat-rate consumption or sales tax. The Minnesota congresswoman got some of the night's loudest cheers with a less technical proposal.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): I would have Congress pass a mother of all repeal bills to essentially repeal the last four years of Pelosi, Reid and Obama. That would be a pleasure.

ROGERS: The 2012 Republican hopefuls are expected to appear as a group again next week in a debate in South Carolina sponsored by Fox News. They're slated to debate again in New Hampshire in mid-June.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.

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