HANOVER, N.H. - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney took some less staunchly conservative stands than his rivals in their debate Tuesday night, declaring he can work with "good" Democrats and positioning himself closer to the center in line with his claim that he can draw crucial independent voters in next year's general election.
He even defended portions of the Wall Street bailout, a particular sore point with many conservative voters who will play an important role in choosing the Republican nominee next winter and spring. But the former Massachusetts governor joined the others in sharply criticizing numerous aspects of President Barack Obama's economic policies in a debate focused on the nation's frail economy.
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.
Romney said no one likes the idea of bailing out big Wall Street 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."
The bailouts are a touchy subject in the campaign, as many GOP voters fault Obama's handling of the matter. 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.
Texas Gov. Rick 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 Herman 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. Michele 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.
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.