MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican White House hopefuls criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the economy from the opening moments of their first major debate of the campaign season Monday night and pledged emphatically to repeal the administration's year-old health care law.
"When 14 million Americans are out of work we need a new president to end the Obama Depression," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the first among seven contenders on stage to assail the president's economic policies.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, invited as an unannounced contender for the 2012 nomination, used the occasion to announce she had filed papers earlier in the day to run — a disclosure in keeping with a feisty style she has employed since her election to Congress.
Obama was hundreds of miles away, vowing to continue his efforts to create jobs as the Republicans met on a stage at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum accused Obama of pursuing "oppressive policies" that have shackled the economy.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty labeled Obama a "declinist" who views America "as one of equals around the world," rather than a special nation.
"If Brazil can have 5 percent growth, if China can have 5 percent growth, then America can have 5 percent growth," he added, shrugging off criticism that his own economic projections were impossibly rosy.
Businessman Herman Cain, a political novice, called for eliminating the capital gains tax as a way to stimulate job creation.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stressed his experience as a businessman over 25 years as evidence that he can lead the nation out of a lingering recession.
Said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the seventh contender on the stage: "As long as we are running a program that deliberately weakens our currency, our jobs will go overseas. And that's what's happening."
Romney was the nominal front-runner. But the public opinion polls that made him so are notoriously unreliable at this point in the campaign, when relatively few voters have begun to familiarize themselves with their choices.
Nor can the polls predict the television commercials as yet un-run, or the other events that make a nominating campaign so unpredictable.
Already, this race has had its share of surprises.
Several likely candidates decided not to run — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels among them — and at least one who ruled out a race is reconsidering. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he will decide after the state Legislature completes its current session, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's plans are still unknown.
Gingrich, quick off the mark in attacking Obama, suffered the mass exodus of the entire top echelon of his campaign last week, an unprecedented event that left his chances of winning the nomination in tatters.
And Bachmann — new to the race — drew one of the loudest rounds of applause Monday night from a partisan debate audience when she predicted that Obama would not win re-election. He is "a one-term president," she declared.