Galvanised by gathering indications that America's recovery is unlikely to gain speed ahead of next year's presidential race, seven Republican hopefuls took the opportunity of a first televised debate in New Hampshire to repeatedly lambast President Barack Obama for mismanaging economic policy.
"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," declared Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and business executive with a record of turning faltering businesses around. He and the founder of the Tea Party caucus on Capitol Hill, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, from Minnesota, may have been the stand-outs at Monday night's debate.
Suggesting that Republicans have a "great story" to tell on the economy, Ms Bachmann said Mr Obama's "report card right now has a big failing grade on it". She took the unique step of using the debate to announce her intention to run for the Republican nomination. Witty on the stage, she may prove a compelling contender in the months ahead even though her credentials to become America's next commander-in-chief remain skimpy.
But Monday's debate, aired by CNN, gave a first glimpse of what Mr Obama is likely to face. In unison, the candidates assailed him for bailing out Wall Street and the car industry, for putting government intervention above private sector innovation and, above all, for his healthcare overhaul, which they all vowed to repeal.
While the seven before the TV cameras might prefer it were otherwise, it is unlikely that the Republican field, which has already been slow in forming, has yet properly settled. Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah who until recently was Mr Obama's ambassador to China, is set to announce his candidacy shortly, reports said last night.
And there is still the puzzle of Sarah Palin, running mate to John McCain last time. Ms Bachmann may now be an obstacle to her getting into the race. Both would hope to secure the evangelical and Tea Party wing of the party. Some grassroots activists are also pressing the Texas Governor Rick Perry, another social conservative, to jump in.
The good news for Mr Obama is that of those who have already declared, none has yet fired the imagination of the country. Mr Romney may have cemented himself as the front-runner on the stage on Monday night but he suffers firstly because this is his second tilt at the White House and also because conservatives can never forgive him for introducing a healthcare scheme in Massachusetts that was a partial blueprint for what Mr Obama and the Democrats passed nationally.
Yet Mr Obama, who yesterday courted the Hispanic vote by becoming the first sitting president in 50 years to visit Puerto Rico, will underestimate the re-election headwinds at his peril. No incumbent since the Second World War has won re-election with a national unemployment rate above 7.2 per cent. The rate today is 9.1 per cent.
"The pressure to come up with something is getting stronger all the time, because the numbers in the last two months have not been good," said Professor Jeremy Mayer, of the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.
Much attention was focused on Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, who last week saw the bottom fall out of his campaign with the en masse resignation of his senior advisers. He joined the others by concentrating most of his fire on the White House incumbent. The nation needs "a new president to end the Obama depression", he said. Also under the microscope was Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, who has been trying to position himself as the credible alternative to Mr Romney. On the eve of the debate, he accused Mr Romney of essentially being the father of Mr Obama's healthcare reforms and called it "Obamneycare". But on the debate stage he backed off from repeating the sound-bite.
The long-shots did little to shorten the odds against them. They were the libertarian Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, as well as Rick Santorum, a former Senator whose conservatism makes him unpalatable to moderates, and a pizza chain executive, Herman Cain, who repeated a putrid line about not wanting a Muslim American in his cabinet because "you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us".
The former Pennsylvania senator may have been one of the least well known of the contenders, but his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage is likely to have scored points with social conservatives. He boasts strong foreign policy credentials, but faces allegations of homophobia, after suggesting in 2003 that homosexuality bore comparisons with bestiality and paedophilia.
'I have not just taken the pledge but I've taken the bullets to go and fight for this...'
The Tea Party co-founder finally stepped out of Sarah Palin's shadow at the New Hampshire debate and shone with family credentials (she has five children with her husband and cared for 23 foster children). But Bachmann – who has called global warming a hoax and suggested that homosexuality is a treatable illness – may still prove too right-wing for most voters.
'Make no mistake about it. President Obama is a one-term president'
The former House speaker's campaign took a blow last week when the senior ranks of his campaign staff abandoned his bid, citing "differences in direction". His work ethic and fundraising abilities were singled out for criticism, but his campaign had already been mired in other controversies and PR disasters, including a reported six-figure debt at Tiffany's jewellery store.
'When 14 million Americans are out of work we need a new president...'
Considered the early front-runner for the GOP nomination, but as shown during this debate, the 64-year-old former Massachusetts governor will be repeatedly forced to defend the universal healthcare reform law he passed whilst governor – nicknamed "Romneycare" and often linked with "Obamacare" – which generally proved unpopular among Republicans.
'Five years ago it was "who the heck is this guy" and now it's "we know who you are"'
The Texan congressman is a Tea Party favourite, but his liberal leanings and anti-war stance could prove alienating for many conservative voters. The most outspoken of the debaters, he advocated cuts to military spending, maintained US forces did not belong in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, and said the government had no place in any kind of marriage, whether gay or straight.
'We should think about protecting our borders, rather than those between Iraq and Afghanistan'
Critics have poked fun at the former Minnesota governor's gentle approach to the race so far, but it looks like Pawlenty may change tact. In an attack on his rival Mitt Romney on Sunday, he coined the term "Obamneycare", to link Romney's health policy with the President's unpopular reforms, although he refused to repeat it at the New Hampshire debate.
'I'm for a fair and open trade but I'm not for being stupid and I'm not for being a chump'
Former CEO of Godfather's Pizza fast food chain, the conservative Atlanta radio talk show host remains a little-known curiosity for many Republican voters. The debate was his chance to charm viewers with the pithy one-liners he is known for, but instead, he became bogged down in back-tracking over past controversial comments regarding his views on Muslims.
'This economy is stalled. It's like a train on the tracks with no engine'
The former Alaska governor needs little introduction, but John McCain's former running mate, reality-TV star, and self-styled "hockey-mom" has yet to declare whether she will enter the GOP nomination race, citing her high-profile public image as an issue she needs to address if she is to be taken seriously as a candidate. However, she has dropped several heavy hints she will run, and said she believes she could beat Barack Obama in 2012.
'I'm engaged in the internal deliberations candidly...'
The former Utah governor could prove to be a key rival, if only for his deep pockets. He has not yet declared himself as an official candidate, but plans to make the announcement on 21 June in a park in New Jersey with the Statue of Liberty in the background, according to a leak from an aide yesterday. Huntsman recently resigned from his post as Barack Obama's ambassador to China, which suggested a career change was imminent.
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