Alex Brandon, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Republicans angling for his job compared President Barack Obama to a one-term Democratic president and a Democratic vice president who fell short in his bid to win the presidency.
Appearing before conservatives who hold huge sway in the GOP presidential nomination fight, a stream of would-be GOP candidates called Obama weak and suggested they alone possess the talents needed to beat him and lead a country in crisis.
In unrelenting attacks on Obama, the lineup of potential contenders took on the president's economic team, his advisers and even the first lady's vegetable garden. They did little to mask their disdain for the man they hope to replace.
"Ladies and gentleman: Barack Obama is not behaving like Ronald Reagan. He's behaving like Jimmy Carter," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said, likening Obama to the incumbent president Reagan defeated in 1980 amid a foreign policy and economic crisis.
"President Obama has stood watch over the greatest job loss in modern American history. And that, my friends, is one inconvenient truth that will haunt this president throughout history," former Massacusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said, linking Obama with the film title of Democrats' 2000 presidential hopeful, Vice President Al Gore.
"Two years ago, this new president faced an economic crisis and an increasingly uncertain world; an uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction from a weak president," Romney said.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran and Islamic extremists are overshadowed by worries about Obama's handling of those threats.
"The only thing more alarming than these threats is the president's weak response. We can't win a peace with apologies and reset buttons," said Thune, who is contemplating a presidential bid but has yet to lay the groundwork to start a full-fledged campaign.
Pawlenty, his voice hoarse and rising, questioned whether Obama was standing up for U.S. foreign policy.
"Mr. President, with bullies, might makes right," Pawlenty said, drawing the crowd to its feet. "Strength makes them submit. Get tough on our enemies — not our friends."
The annual gathering of more than 11,000 conservatives marked the unofficial start of the GOP presidential nomination fight. Not a single Republican has announced his or her candidacy and there is no clear front-runner among the potential candidates to take on the Democratic incumbent.
But many of the speakers are all-but-declared contenders. When Romney couched his ambitions — "if I were to decide to run for president," he began one part of his speech — the crowd in the ballroom laughed.
They also rose to their feet when he talked about an out-of-work Obama as early as 2013.
"It's going to take a lot more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It's going to take a new president," Romney said to cheers.
Thune, too, looked ahead to the next election.
"If we're going to solve our entitlement problem in this country, we need to solve our White House problem by electing a conservative president in 2012," Thune said.
Pawlenty said Obama's approach to spending reflects just how out-of-touch he is with voters, who threw scores of Democrats from power in November and gave Republicans control of the U.S. House.
"Here's another commonsense principle from the heartland that President Obama clearly still needs to learn. And it's this: People spend money differently — when it's their own money," Pawlenty said.
The start of the 2012 presidential campaign has been slower than the beginning of the last cycle, when candidates hired staff in the days after the 2006 midterm elections and shortly afterward opened campaign offices in the key early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.