By John Whitesides and Ros Krasny
HANOVER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican front-runner Mitt Romney largely ignored his presidential rivals at a debate on Tuesday, casting himself as the candidate most suited to rescue the economy and lead the party back to the White House.
At an economic debate that featured harsh criticism of the federal government from his rivals, the former Massachusetts governor touted his real-world experience, defended corporate bailouts and rarely broke a sweat.
"I spent my entire career working in the private sector, starting businesses, helping turn around businesses," he said in the debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "I know how to make tough decisions."
The debate came hours after Romney, who leads the race in opinion polls, won the endorsement of popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a sign the party's establishment was falling in line behind his candidacy.
Romney was one of eight candidates in the debate on economic issues. But he rarely engaged with rivals like Texas Governor Rick Perry, and he reminded independents in moderate New Hampshire of his own success at working with Democrats.
Pressed about his past support for Wall Street bailouts, Romney presented them as a necessary but unfortunate task.
"Action had to be taken," he said of the 2008 bailouts. "Was it perfect? No. Was it well implemented? No, not particularly. Were there some institutions that should not have been bailed out? Absolutely."
Perry, whose faltering performance in recent debates had sent his campaign into a tailspin, was largely an afterthought and rarely won the spotlight during a mostly polite debate.
Several of the Republican candidates attacked the U.S. government and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for mismanaging the struggling economy.
"I think if you look at the problem with the economic meltdown, you can trace it right back to the federal government," U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann said.
"It was the federal government that demanded that banks and mortgage companies lower platinum level lending standards to new lows," she said. "It was the federal government that pushed the subprime loans."
Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed the finger at Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
"The first person to fire is Bernanke, who is a disastrous chairman of the Federal Reserve. The second person to fire is Geithner," he said.
Several candidates also turned their fire on surging candidate Herman Cain's "999" plan to scrap the federal tax code and replace it with a flat 9 percent tax on corporations, income and sales.
Critics said the tax would open up more opportunities for the federal government to start new revenue streams.
"We're not going to give the federal government ... a new pipeline, a 9 percent sales tax for consumers to get hammered by the federal government," former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum said. "How many people believe that we'll keep the income tax at 9 percent? Anybody?"
Cain, who has surged into the top tier in polls of the 2012 Republican race after a surprise win in a Florida straw poll last month, defended his tax plan as a solution to the federal deficit.
"9-9-9 is bold, and the American people want a bold solution, not just what's going to kick the can down the road," he said.
The debate, sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post, was the seventh in the Republican race for the White House and came three months before the first voting in the Republican race.
Perry led the field after entering the race in August but fell back in the pack after he was attacked by rivals last month for supporting cheaper in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and for ordering young girls be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted virus.
He had trouble getting involved in the debate after being the focus of attention last month.
"We have got to have a president who is willing to stand up and to clearly pull back those regulations that are strangling the American entrepreneurship that's out there," Perry said, rejecting charges from Romney about failing to produce an economic plan.
"Mitt has had six years to be working on a plan. I have been in this for about eight weeks," said Perry, who will release his economic plan on Friday.
Romney said he would label China a currency manipulator and pursue them for stealing intellectual property, but Republican Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, warned of a trade war.
"If you start slapping penalties on them based on countervailing duties, you are going to get the same thing in return," said Huntsman, who has staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire but has struggled to make up ground there.
"And then you're going to find yourself in a trade war very, very quickly," he said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)