POLITICS

Romney comes out strong in economy debate

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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 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.

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