Romney on middle ground: I can work with Democrats

HANOVER, N.H. (AP) - Presidential challenger Mitt Romney accused
President Barack Obama of failing to lead in a time of economic
peril but sounded less conservative than his Republican rivals in
their debate Tuesday night, defending the 2008-2009 Wall Street
bailout and declaring he could work with "good" Democrats.

Romney also gave one of his most spirited defenses of his health
care initiative when he was Massachusetts governor, legislation
that Obama has called a partial blueprint for his own national
overhaul. By positioning himself closer to the political center on
several points, Romney sought to underscore his claim that he can
draw crucial independent voters in next year's general election.

His chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seemed less sure-footed.
He repeated his main talking points about free enterprise but did
little to dent Romney.

Former pizza company executive Herman Cain, who has climbed in
polls lately, got more air time than usual. He repeatedly touted
his call for replacing the U.S. tax code with a 9 percent national
sales tax and a 9 percent levy on personal and corporate income.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Obama defended his economic policies and
criticized his Republican foes in a visit to the general election
battleground of Pennsylvania.

And, hours before the candidates met in Hanover, Romney picked
up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement. Romney hopes it
will help cement his support among the GOP establishment and
nurture an image that he's the party's inevitable nominee.

Romney seemed happy to play the part of front-runner in the
nearly two-hour debate, sponsored by Bloomberg News and The
Washington Post. He joked breezily with the moderators, chided
Perry for interrupting him and ignored the Texan when quizzing
other contenders.

Romney's strategy might carry some risks in a Republican primary
process that's dominated by staunch conservatives, especially in
the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. The Wall Street
bailout is a sore point with many such voters.

But Romney seemed to sail through the debate largely unscathed,
with Cain and Perry scoring few direct hits. The sharpest criticism
of his bailout remarks came from former Sen. Rick Santorum, who
lags in the polls.

Romney said no one likes the idea of bailing out big Wall Street
firms. However, he said, many of the actions taken in 2008 and 2009
were needed to keep the dollar's value from plummeting and "to
make sure that we didn't all lose our jobs." The nation was on a
precipice, Romney said, "and we could have had a complete

Romney, however, said he disagreed with Obama's actions to shore
up General Motors and Chrysler. The administration says the moves
were highly successful and much of the federal money has been

Romney said he would work with "good" Democrats to lead the
country out of economic crisis. He said that's what he did as
Massachusetts governor and what he would do if he wins the White

Perry was not asked about the bailouts, but his campaign
distributed his past statements saying "government should not be
in the business of using taxpayer dollars to bail out corporate

Perry said the government must open the way for more production
of domestic energy sources. The nation must "pull back those
regulations that are strangling American entrepreneurship," he

He pressed Romney on his decision as Massachusetts governor to
require residents to obtain health insurance, a central component
of Obama's federal plan.

"I'm proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in my
state," Romney said. Eight percent of Massachusetts residents were
uninsured, he said, and they took advantage of others who covered
their costs at emergency rooms.

Romney said Obama's national plan differed from his state plan
because Obama raised taxes and cut Medicare.

Romney then turned the issue against Perry. "We have the lowest
number of kids who are uninsured of any state in America," he
said. "You have the highest" in Texas.

Given a chance to assail Wall Street, Minnesota Rep. Michele
Bachmann blamed too much regulation for the sluggish economy. She also said Obama wants to let Medicare collapse, pushing everyone into "Obamacare," the health overhaul passed by congressional Democrats in 2010.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Americans have a right
to be angry about the economy. He said the solution is firing
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary
Timothy Geithner.

When Cain praised former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, Rep. Ron
Paul retorted that Greenspan was "a disaster." Paul, the most
libertarian of the eight candidates, has called for eliminating the
Federal Reserve.

For much of the debate, which focused solely on the economy, the
candidates stuck to their economic messages and kept their
criticism turned on Obama. The verbal fistfights of the three
previous debates didn't occur Tuesday night, even though the first
primaries and caucuses are less than 100 days away.

The question of the candidates' religious affiliations, a hot
topic in the past few days, came up only in a light-hearted way.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman joked that he wouldn't raise the
issue with Romney, a fellow Mormon.

"Sorry, Rick," he said to Perry. A Perry supporter last week
said that Mormons are not Christians.

Even when the candidates were given the chance to ask each other
questions, the exchanges were cordial.

Three candidates in a row - Cain, Gingrich and Huntsman -
directed their questions to Romney, underscoring his perch as the
Republican to beat. In each case, Romney avoided appearing
defensive or testy.

Romney directed his question to Bachmann. His choice seemed to
suggest that he doesn't see Perry or Cain as dire threats, and it
might play well with female voters and with staunch conservatives
in Iowa, where Perry needs to do well.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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