CONCORD, N.H. — Republicans considering a White House run in 2012 assailed President Barack Obama's deficit-reduction proposal and cast him as a tax-raising liberal who's failing to pull the nation back from the brink of financial catastrophe.
The criticism looks a lot like the opening salvo in a race certain to be shaped by spending issues.
Most of the contenders have indicated their preference for a spending blueprint offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. While praising Ryan, R-Wis., they have stopped short of endorsing his plan completely.
"That's a very good start. It does some things that need to be done," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Thursday at a breakfast with Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas.
During his opening trip to the first-in-the-nation primary state, Barbour said he found much to like in Ryan's plan to cut defense spending and in his Medicare proposal.
Ryan was "direct with the American people," Barbour said. Obama, who outlined a competing plan Wednesday that includes tax increases, says entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid "are not sustainable, but he's never proposed doing anything about it until – maybe – he did it yesterday," Barbour told reporters at a gun shop in Hooksett. "Ryan, on the other hand, took the bulls by the horns."
Barbour said he was disappointed that "the line in the sand" that Obama wants to draw "is a trillion-dollar tax increase because I think economic growth has to come first."
His fellow GOP contenders hammered the president on the same issue in appearances Thursday in New Hampshire and in written statements after what amounted to Obama's first major re-election speech.
At New England College in Henniker, former Sen. Rick Santorum called Obama's approach tax-heavy and policy-light.
"The idea of taxing our way to prosperity is simply not proven at any time in our history of this country," Santorum told students.
The former senator from Pennsylvania praised Ryan but stopped short of a wholesale endorsement.
"He had a job as chairman of the Budget Committee to lay out a vision," Santorum told reporters after the session. "These are critical economic times."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said that Obama "went from being wrong to being deceptive and intellectually dishonest."
"Over the last two years, the president's job was to repair the economy and to make us safer. He has failed at both but at least he appeared to be trying – his failures were arguably attributable to inexperience, misguidance and incompetence," he wrote on National Review's website on Thursday.
To former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the president "continues to operate with a left-wing world view that will hurt seniors, kill jobs, raise gas prices and increase our crushing debt."
Added former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: "We can't restore America's promise with a president who has broken his promise to the American people."
"Then-candidate Obama looked the American people in the eye and said, 'I won't spend another dime in the federal budget that isn't fully paid for.' Remember that statement?" Pawlenty told Nashua Republicans. "President Obama didn't keep the promise, did he? No he didn't."
Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest to help cut the deficit. He contrasted his vision with the House GOP's, which he said was "embraced by several of their party's presidential candidates."
"It paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic," Obama said.
Obama launched his re-election campaign last week and was hosting his first fundraising events in Chicago on Thursday. Several Republicans, including Romney and Pawlenty, took their first formal steps into the race over the past few weeks.
Ryan's budget proposes spending cuts of $5.8 trillion over 10 years. It would reduce tax rates for corporations and the wealthy. It would repeal Obama's health care overhaul and recast Medicare and Medicaid, which could open GOP candidates to criticism that they were hurting the poor and the elderly.
Obama proposes reducing deficits by $4 trillion over 12 years. He would leave Medicare and Medicaid basically in their current forms, but both programs would see cuts. He wants to allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire for individuals making $200,000 or more a year and couples making $250,000 or more.