HANOVER, N.H. — 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 presidential debate Tuesday night, defending the 2008 Wall Street bailout and saying he can work with "good" Democrats.
Romney sought to position 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 GOP challengers. All said they would handle U.S. economic problems far differently than 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 America 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.
The Wall Street bailout is a particular sore point with many conservative voters who will play an important role in choosing the GOP nominee. 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."
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.
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."
Former pizza company executive 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.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for the recession.
Also criticizing Washington's handling of the economy were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.