Republicans eyeing the 2016 White House race battered US President Barack Obama’s healthcare law and nicked each other on Saturday, auditioning before a high-profile gathering of conservatives that some political veterans said marked the campaign’s unofficial start.
Some of the party’s potential presidential candidates weighed in on the US House of Representatives Republicans’ controversial budget, the party’s struggle to gain support among Hispanics, the Republican Party’s future and the upcoming midterm elections as they took turns on a conference room stage facing hundreds of conservative activists gathered in New Hampshire’s largest city.
The summit comes as prospective presidential candidates begin to step up appearances in key states ahead of the 2016 presidential contest, even though New Hampshire’s influential first-in-the-nation presidential primary is not planned for another two years.
“It’s the unofficial kickoff of the 2016 process,” said Republican operative Mike Biundo, who managed former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s last presidential campaign.
The Republican Party’s near-universal opposition to the president’s healthcare law dominated the conversation just a day after former US secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius resigned after leading the rocky rollout of the program derided as “Obamacare.”
US Senator Ted Cruz declared that one resignation is not enough.
“We are going to repeal every single word of Obamacare,” the first-term senator and favorite of the small government Tea Party movement said.
Another Tea Party favorite, US Senator Rand Paul, said that the party must broaden its appeal in order to grow.
The Republican Party, he said, cannot be a party of “fat cats, rich people and Wall Street.”
Neither Paul nor Cruz defended the sweeping budget plan authored by another potential presidential contender, US Representative Paul Ryan.
The budget, approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives in recent days, transforms entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid — which provide healthcare coverage to the elderly and poor — to help reduce federal spending.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said the Ryan plan was simply “a starting point,” but that “there would be some things I’d probably change,” declining to be more specific.
Another high-profile Republican, real-estate mogul Donald Trump, was more critical.
“His whole stance is to knock the hell out of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” Trump said of Ryan. “I would leave it alone. I don’t want to hurt people.”
As potential presidential candidates jockey for position, the stakes are high for November’s elections in which control of the US Congress will be at stake. Republicans are fighting to win the six seats they need to claim the US Senate majority, and if they succeed they could block Obama’s legislative priorities in the final two years of his presidency.
The president’s healthcare law could figure prominently in November House and Senate contests across the US.
The industrialist Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, which cohosted Saturday’s summit, has already spent millions of dollars on healthcare-related attack ads aimed at vulnerable Democratic senators in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and elsewhere.