Republicans clash in first big presidential debate

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Republican presidential candidates faced off Monday for the first big televised debate of the 2012 election and immediately opened fire on President Barack Obama's handling of the economy.

Seven White House candidates went toe-to-toe in Manchester, New Hampshire, all seeking both to attack Obama and to raise their profiles among Republican voters nationwide.

After a rather stiff and formal introduction to each other on stage, the candidates went to their lecterns in an ultra-modern studio hosted by CNN for the first of many beauty contests before the party can pick its champion.

"When 14 million Americans are out of work we need a new president to end the Obama depression," Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, said.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the early frontrunner for the party nomination, but rivals including Tea Party favorite Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who used the debate to declare her formal candidacy, were hoping to chip at his pedestal.

Obama's reelection battle is not until November next year. However, Republicans face a grueling primary battle, with one of the first contests taking place February in New Hampshire, where a good or poor showing can crucially influence momentum heading into other, much bigger states.

Republicans believe Obama is deeply vulnerable towards the end of his first term over the nation's still anemic recovery from recession and persistent unemployment of more than nine percent.

Latest polls confirm Romney as the man to beat, with a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Monday giving him 24 percent.

But in an election season where the Republican Party faces internal tensions between moderates and the Tea Party wing, the nomination race is proving unpredictable.

With so much volatility, many were watching the relatively unknown Herman Cain -- the only African American candidate for the Republican nomination -- to earn a boost from the debate, which aired live on CNN.

The pizza entrepreneur has used forceful speaking skills to come from nowhere against the more established politicians and attract an enthusiastic and growing following. A Gallup poll released Sunday puts him a surprise third in the Republican field.

Other challengers at the debate included libertarian Texan Congressman Ron Paul, socially conservative former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

One thing they agreed on was hammering Obama over the economy, which polls show will be the number one issue ahead of the November 2012 election, and his controversial health care measure.

Bachmann, a Congressional leader of the libertarian and rightwing Tea Party movement, won applause from the audience when she cried out that President Obama "is a one term president!"

The other thing that could unite most of the candidates was ganging up against Romney.

The ex-governor is seen as the most heavyweight challenger, with the experience of a failed 2008 bid under his belt, but critics question his charisma.

He also shoulders the possibly deadlier burden, from a Republican perspective, of having introduced a universal health care plan to Massachusetts that looks much like the controversial measure enacted nationally by Obama.

However, Romney deftly took the issue head on Monday, saying that he wished Obama had given him a call to ask how to implement such measures better.

The national health care mandate, he said, would not survive under his presidency.

"If I am elected president I will repeal Obamacare," he said.

The elephant in the room during the debate was Sarah Palin, another Tea Party figure and arguably the best known Republican in the country.

The former Alaskan governor, who so far has failed to appeal much beyond her wildly passionate core support, is flirting with a presidential run, but has yet to declare and will not participate Monday. Gallup puts her second with 16 percent, while the CNN poll put her second with 20 percent.

Another non-participant is Jon Huntsman, who until recently was the US ambassador to China and is now seen as a potential dark horse candidate for the Republican nod. He campaigned last week in New Hampshire and says he could declare within two weeks.

If they needed any more motivation to perform well Monday, Republican debaters got some from the fresh Gallup poll: by 2:1 supporters say they are ready to change their minds about whom they will pick.

Obama is also in campaign mode. On Monday he was discussing employment with business executives in the swing state of North Carolina. The president was then due to head to another critical electoral state, Florida.

© 2011 AFP

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