April 30 (Bloomberg) — Five Republicans considering 2012 presidential bids leveled criticism of President Barack Obama on the economy, offering a contrast on a central election issue during a forum in the home of the nation’s first primary.

At what was billed as a “presidential summit” on the economy sponsored by the Tea Party-affiliated group Americans for Prosperity, the Republican prospects yesterday sketched a small-government vision of lower taxes, less spending and lighter regulation, laying the nation’s current fiscal woes squarely at Obama’s feet.

The president “says he just inherited the downturn.” former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney told an audience at a banquet hall in Manchester, New Hampshire. “Yeah, that’s right, but he made it worse, and he made it deeper, and longer.”

He said Republicans would “have to hang the Obama misery index around his neck,” referring to the measure of unemployment rate plus inflation that was a centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s successful campaign against then-incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty also went after Obama, opening his remarks by playing on discontent about high fuel prices and joblessness.

“You had enough of $4-a-gallon gas?” Pawlenty asked. “You had enough of unbearable levels of unemployment? You had enough of a federal government that’s out of control? You had enough of Barack Obama?”

Few Details Offered

In the first multicandidate forum of the still-unformed Republican primary, Romney, Pawlenty and the other possible contenders for the nomination -- none of whom has formally declared his or her candidacy -- offered scant details of their own economic ideas while taking turns critiquing the man whose office they may seek. They never shared the stage, making brief remarks and then taking two questions each from the group’s president, Tim Phillips.

Republicans believe that the shaky economy will be a key element of their offensive against Obama. The U.S. economy slowed more than forecast in the first quarter of this year as government spending declined by the greatest amount since 1983 and household purchases cooled. Gross domestic product rose at a 1.8 percent annual rate from January through March, down from a 3.1 percent pace in the final three months of 2010.

Consumer confidence in the U.S. fell last week for the first time in a month, and measures of personal finances and buying climate dropped, suggesting households may limit purchases as fuel costs rise.

Massachusetts Health-Care Law

Romney offered a partial defense of the 2006 health-care measure he shepherded into law in Massachusetts that -- like the federal legislation Obama signed last year -- requires people to purchase health insurance.

“I had to work to try and solve the problem, and it may not be perfect -- it is not perfect. Some parts of that experiment worked, some parts didn’t. Some things I’d change,” Romney said, responding to a question. “One thing I’d never do, by the way, would be to impose a one-size-fits-all plan like Obamacare on the nation. That’s simply wrong and unconstitutional, and it won’t work.”

Pawlenty had a different approach when asked about his initial support for a Minnesota measure to limit carbon emissions, similar to the so-called cap-and-trade approach Obama favors.

“It was a mistake, it was stupid, and I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t try to defend it. Everybody’s got a couple of clunkers in their record.”

Rolling Back Agenda

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said repealing the health-care law would be a key element of her economic prescription, along with immediately balancing the budget, slashing corporate tax rates to 9 percent, and scrapping the tax code for one that imposed a consumption tax. She also called for enacting “the mother of all repeal bills” to roll back Obama’s entire agenda.

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania called Obama’s vision of the country “chilling,” citing a recent speech in which the president said the nation would not be great without its commitments to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“America was founded great. It wasn’t great because some politicians gave us stuff,” Santorum said. He said he was motivated by “freedom and trust in the American people,” and would instead undo the health-care law, lower taxes and pursue more domestic energy exploration.

The most enthusiastic reception was given to fast-food magnate Herman Cain, the onetime chairman of Godfather’s Pizza, whose preacher-like delivery of his five-point plan of lowering taxes and reining in spending drew frequent laughs and applause. “Take it to zero!” he said of the taxes on capital gains and on corporate profits earned overseas and brought back to the U.S.

He closed with a unique take on American exceptionalism, saying, “We are the big potatoes and we can take back our country. Be a big potato!”