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Fighting words from Republican candidates

Jockeying on the eve of their first consequential debate, Republican presidential contenders ratcheted up their attacks Sunday on President Obama and on one another, signaling a new, more pugnacious phase in the GOP contest.

The strongest shot came from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who swiped at the healthcare plan signed into law by his fellow ex-governor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. In perhaps the ultimate Republican primary insult, Pawlenty lumped Romney’s state plan with Obama’s federal healthcare overhaul under the acerbic moniker “Obamneycare.”

“President Obama said that he designed ‘Obamacare’ after ‘Romneycare’ and basically made it Obamneycare,” Pawlenty said, with some creative license, on “Fox News Sunday.”

“And so, we now have the same features,” Pawlenty said, “essentially the same features.... And what I don’t understand is they both continue to defend it.”

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A spokeswoman for Romney responded by ignoring Pawlenty’s assertions.

“Republicans should keep the focus on President Obama’s failure to create jobs and control spending,” Andrea Saul said. “People are looking for leadership on the economy and the budget. Mitt Romney wants to be that leader.”

The back-and-forth came as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped back onto the campaign trail after last week’s internal revolt in which virtually the entire command of his presidential campaign quit en masse. Gingrich appeared Sunday night before a Jewish Republican group at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and spoke only glancingly of his recent travails.

“As someone who has been in public life for nearly 40 years, I know full well the rigors of campaigning for public office. In fact, I’ve had some recent reminders,” he said. “But ... I will endure the challenges, I will carry the message of American renewal to every part of this great land, no matter what it takes, and with the help of every American who wants to change Washington, we will prevail.”

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Reprising his criticism of Obama’s Middle East policies, Gingrich accused the president of “using political objectives and code words of those who wish to drive Israel into the sea” and “leading Israel and the Western democracies toward ever-increasing danger.”

The Republican presidential candidates have vehemently attacked Obama since he called last month for a peace agreement based partly on boundaries in place before Israel’s territorial gains in the 1967 war. While the position matches the negotiating stance of previous presidents — Republican and Democratic — the GOP hopefuls have repeatedly questioned Obama’s commitment to Israel, trying to reach out to Jewish voters as well as Christian evangelicals who ardently support the Jewish state.

More noteworthy Sunday was the thrust-and-parry among the Republican contenders, who have largely avoided pointed assaults like the one Pawlenty launched against Romney.

Pawlenty appeared to be positioning himself on an aggressive track heading into Monday night’s New Hampshire debate, which will be the first to feature Romney. Pawlenty and a handful of lesser-known Republican prospects held their first debate last month in South Carolina.

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An unofficial candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, used his own Sunday talk show appearance to step up his criticism of Obama — who appointed him as ambassador to China, a post he held until recently.

Huntsman said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Obama had “failed on the economic front,” adding: “You look at unemployment, you look at the environment in which jobs supposedly can be created — when you look at the debt level and you look at all the economic indicators, it would suggest that we’re in bad shape.”

After spending a whirlwind month visiting key nominating states, Huntsman said he planned to announce his presidential campaign in about a week and a half, though he will skip Monday night’s debate — a decision that has drawn criticism in the state that will hold the first primary.

Meantime, both Romney and Huntsman came in for criticism from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who formally entered the race last week.

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“I think they have held positions in the past that have not been conservative,” he told David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “And I think they have to account for those.”? ?

Another prospective candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, appeared in Los Angeles on Sunday at a rally of several thousand Latino antiabortion activists at the Sports Arena in Exposition Park.

Perry made no mention of his political plans, instead outlining steps he has taken over the last 10 years to tighten abortion restrictions in Texas. He also criticized Obama’s support for embryonic stem cell research, saying it turned “the remains of unborn children into nothing more than raw material.”

Speculation about a prospective Perry candidacy has grown since the mass resignations upended Gingrich’s campaign: Two of his former top aides are also close to Perry.

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A spokesman for the governor, Mark Miner, reiterated Sunday that Perry was focused on the Texas legislative session and said a decision on a White House run was unlikely before the end of this month, when the session is scheduled to end.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com


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