Scott Eells, Pool, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011.
HANOVER, N.H. — 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 Wall Street bailout and declaring he can work with "good" Democrats.
Romney positioned himself closer to the center in line with his claim that he can draw crucial independent voters in next year's general election.
In the debate, the first focusing on the nation's economy, Obama took a verbal beating from all of the Republican challengers. All said they would handle U.S. economic problems far differently from the man they hope to replace.
But Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Romney's chief rival at this point in the campaign, had to defend himself for not yet offering his own plan.
"I'm not going to lay it out all for you tonight," he said. "Mitt's had six years to be working on a plan; I've been working on this for about eight weeks but clearly we're going to be focused initially on the energy industry in this country and making American again independent."
The debate may do little to help Perry stop his recent slide in polls. With Romney and businessman Herman Cain getting more questions than the others, Perry often seemed to fade into the background.
When each candidate was given a chance to ask a question of anyone else, Romney directed his to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. His choice seemed to suggest that he doesn't see Perry as a threat, and it might play well with female voters and with staunchly conservative voters in Iowa, where Perry needs to do well.
Stealing a bit of attention from the debate, Romney picked up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement a few hours before it began. He's hoping that endorsement, by a man considered a possible major contender until recently, will help cement his support among the GOP establishment and nurture an image that he's the party's inevitable nominee.
The Wall Street bailout is a particular sore point with many conservative voters who will play an important role in choosing the Republican nominee next winter and spring.
Romney said no one likes the idea of bailing out big 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 meltdown."
Romney said he disagreed with Obama's actions to shore up General Motors and Chrysler, although the administration says the moves were highly successful and much of the federal money has been repaid.
Romney also 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 House.
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 America."
In the debate, sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post, 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," Perry said.
Former pizza company executive Cain repeated 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.
Given a chance to assail Wall Street, Minnesota Rep. Bachmann blamed too much regulation. 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 blamed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for the recession.
Also criticizing aspects of Obama's administration were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Obama defended his economic policies and criticized his Republican foes in a visit to the general election battleground of Pennsylvania.
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In the debate, Gingrich said Americans have a right to be angry about the economy, but he said that the solution is firing Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. "If they want to really change things, the first person to fire is Bernanke, who is a disastrous chairman of the Federal Reserve. The second person to fire is Geithner," Gingrich said.
Many of Cain's rivals went after his "9-9-9" tax plan — both seriously and in jest. "I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it," Huntsman joked.