By PHILIP ELLIOTT
WASHINGTON - Republicans angling for President Barack Obama's job compared him 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 foreign policy and economic crises.
"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," Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said, linking Obama with the film that starred the 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.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, too, joined the field criticizing the president, invoking Obama's comments as a candidate that some voters bitterly clung to guns and religion as a way of explaining those who didn't support him in 2008's protracted Democratic primary.
"We Hoosiers hold to some quaint notions," Daniels said in explaining his state. "Some might say we cling to them, though not our of fear or ignorance."
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.
This time, there has been a more tepid start, in part because potential candidates are still contemplating the role of the tea party in the nominating process and, in part, because no one else is fully in the race.
Would-be contenders were using the three-day event to test messages, introduce themselves and gauge support. They also sought to prove their mettle among the strongest conservative activists who are looking for a candidate who can level a devastating attack on the incumbent president.
For all the talk of a weak Obama, the candidates overlooked their own vulnerabilities:
- Romney didn't mention his role in Massachusetts' health care overhaul that has many similarities to Obama's national effort.
- Thune did not mention his vote in support of the 2008 Wall Street bailout that has become anathema for conservatives and resulted in several Republicans losing to primary challengers in 2010.
- Pawlenty emphasized his budget record running Minnesota but failed to note he raised taxes on cigarettes early in his tenure.
- Daniels was the exception, bringing up his remark maligned by conservatives that the next president facing economic crisis "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues." Rather, he encouraged conservatives to broaden their reach, saying: "Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers."
At the White House, Obama's top spokesman dismissed the day of anti-Obama rhetoric.
"I think we did pretty well in Minnesota," Robert Gibbs said of the state Obama during his 2008 campaign.
Romney took a swipe at first lady Michelle Obama's White House garden in a dig at Obama's new effort at bipartisanship rolled out in the State of the Union.
"He sounded like he was going to dig up the first lady's organic garden to put in a Bob's Big Boy," Romney said, referencing the burger chain.
Gibbs said Romney needs to be careful, given his record.
"I'd be interested to see, if throughout the next two years, the two words 'health care' come out of his mouth," Gibbs said.
And Daniels poked fun at Obama's Nobel Peace Prize when thanking the conference's organizer.
"Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded for far less," Daniels said.
A day earlier, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and tea party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota spoke with the group, as did real estate mogul Donald Trump who got a rousing welcome.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is to speak Saturday.
Several potential candidates were absent: Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential GOP nominee, and Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, are favorites among conservatives who declined invitations, citing scheduling conflicts.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, hasn't yet left his job as Obama's ambassador to China, though he has given the White House his resignation, effective this spring. In the meantime, allies have established a campaign-in-waiting and on Friday announced they had hired two aides - both veterans of Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.