Republican Presidential Hopefuls Criticize Obama, Woo Activists

Nearly a dozen Republicans weighing a bid for president criticized Barack Obama, saying the Democratic president is weakening the country’s economy, during a three-day conference of party activists.

“The administration’s policies have been more hostile to job creation than any other I’ve ever seen,” said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. “We can’t put America on the right track until we elect a Republican president in 2012.”

Barbour, 63, joined other would-be contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in wooing activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Event organizers said more than 11,000 people attended the gathering.

The conference gives Republicans a chance to differentiate themselves and test potential primary messages. It culminates in an unscientific presidential straw poll. Arizona Senator John McCain, 74, skipped the conference and was ranked fifth in the poll in 2007, the year before he became the Republican nominee.

Still, potential candidates work to build support at the gathering. An organization affiliated with Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, Campaign for Liberty, offered discounted tickets and lodging for the conference.

Paul, 75, who won the straw poll of potential candidates at last year’s conference, got a boisterous reception for his speech. He attracted a following among some young voters in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2008.

“I’m glad to see the revolution is continuing,” he said to loud cheers.

Donald Trump

Prospective candidates who spoke on Feb. 10 included Representative Michele Bachmann, 54, of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 67, of Georgia and former Senator Rick Santorum, 52, of Pennsylvania.

Billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump, 64, created a buzz when he told the conference he would “decide by June” whether to enter the race.

Among other potential Republican White House contenders, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, 61, addressed the conference’s dinner yesterday and South Dakota Senator John Thune, 50, spoke yesterday afternoon.

Daniels avoided direct criticism of Obama while highlighting his own fiscal record in Indiana and casting the nation’s burgeoning national debt as a national security dilemma.

Red-Ink Menace

“We face an enemy lethal to freedom,” Daniels said. “It is the new ‘Red Menace,’ this time consisting of ink.” He said “if our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won’t have much strength and ultimately we won’t have much peace.”

Former governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, two of the more active unofficial Republican White House contenders, spoke yesterday.

Unlike many of the other prospective presidential contenders addressing the conference, Pawlenty, 50, and Romney, 63, are actively competing for donors and building staff in the states with early nominating races next year.

In their conference appearances, the two former governors were seeking to win over skeptical Tea Party activists, who prefer party insurgents such as Sarah Palin, 46, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee who didn’t attend the conference.

“Romney has a base here, but it’s a thin base,” said David Keene, former president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference. “He’s trying to augment that.”

Most-Improved Candidate

Keene said Pawlenty was making some inroads. “If there were a most-improved candidate, it would be Pawlenty,” he said.

Focusing on the top priorities of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, Pawlenty said Republicans should reject, as part of a push to reign in “reckless” government spending, a soon-to-come administration request for an increase in the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit.

In an appeal to social conservatives, he said, “We, as a nation, must move towards God, not away from Him,” he said.

Romney concentrated on Obama’s economic record, saying the president failed in his response to America’s “job crisis” during his first two years in office. Romney called the nation’s unemployment rate, which stood at 9 percent in January, a “moral tragedy.”

He touted the business experience he gained as co-founder of the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC. “I wouldn’t be asking Timothy Geithner how the economy works or Larry Summers how to start a business. I know,” Romney said.

Geithner serves as Obama’s treasury secretary; Summers recently stepped down as director of the administration’s National Economic Council.

Pawlenty’s critique of Obama included a call for repeal of the health-care overhaul the president pushed into law last year. Romney, who during his 2003-2007 gubernatorial term spearheaded enactment of a state law comparable to the national one, didn’t mention that issue.

Romney’s avoidance of the health-care issue left some of his own supporters grumbling. He’s has faced increased pressure over the issue amid court rulings in Florida and Virginia finding unconstitutional the law’s requirement that individuals carry health insurance.

Christopher Kniesler, a political consultant from New Jersey who wore a Romney sticker, said after the speech that he was heading to talk with Romney’s advisers about the matter.

“That’s going to be the biggest criticism hanging around his head,” he said.

Attacks on the national law Republicans have dubbed “Obamacare” were mainstays in the speeches by others. “The individual mandate in Obamacare is a page right out of the Jimmy Carter playbook,” Pawlenty said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; Heidi Przybyla in Washington at hprzybyla@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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