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Economic woes give Republicans early campaign focus

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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Republicans ready to debate
  • Goal is to frame the 2012 election as a referendum on Obama
  • Regulation, taxes are stifling the private sector, Republicans say
  • White House economic adviser says long-term trends are good

Washington (CNN) -- Eight months before the Iowa caucuses, a spate of bad economic reports last week gave Republicans a chance to start framing the 2012 campaign on their topic of choice -- President Barack Obama's record.

With the unemployment rate ticking up to 9.1 percent, home prices falling further and consumer confidence down, GOP strategists and possible and declared presidential contenders harmonized their criticism of Obama administration economic policies that they say have stymied recovery.

"The problem in the economy ... is that he has a toxic mix in terms of policy, of excessive regulation, of onerous mandates, of massive debt, and of higher taxes that are stifling our economy," former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "That will be the choice in November of 2012."

Possible presidential candidate Sarah Palin compared Obama's policies to a ship she said will soon be "drowning in debt and in additional economic problems."

"It's very noble of President Obama to want to stay at the helm and maybe go down with this sinking ship, but I prefer and many Americans prefer that we start plugging the hole," Palin, the former Alaska governor, told "Fox News Sunday." "We don't have to go the way of the Titanic."

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Herman Cain, a former pizza magnate seeking the GOP nomination, told reporters Sunday he would focus on the economy in the June 13 initial debate among Republican challengers "because we are in an economic crisis."

"If we look at the real facts, this economy is not in a serious recovery if it is recovering at all," Cain said.

Obama's top economic adviser told CNN earlier Sunday that the private sector must become the driver of a still fragile economic recovery buffeted by high gas prices, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and other "headwinds" so far this year.

Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said the administration's focus is on strengthening business investment and expansion to keep the recovery going.

"There's no question as you come out of the worst downturn in most of our lifetimes, that it is going to be fragile," Goolsbee said of recovering from what he called the worst recession since the Great Depression of more than 80 years ago.

Through steps such as the December political agreement that lowered payroll taxes and a look at streamlining government regulations, the administration is trying to boost private sector investment and overall involvement in the recovery, he said.

"Corporations have started to become profitable again," Goolsbee said. "There's money sitting on their balance sheets."

Cain took exception with Goolsbee's strategy, saying "the problem with that is that government won't get out of the way."

"The way you allow the private sector to lead this recovery is you lower taxes and you lower regulations," Cain said. "The president is already talking about raising taxes because of the debt, so the private sector is willing to lead this recovery but government has to get out of the way."

To Goolsbee and Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director under Obama, the government's economic policies and actions in the past two-plus years prevented a possible depression and saved millions of jobs.

Dunn, also appearing on CNN, pointed out that Obama on Friday "was surrounded by workers in a Chrysler factory in Toledo, Ohio, who, if the Republican Party had had their way, wouldn't have jobs any longer and that factory would be shuttered."

"Instead, thanks to the leadership of this administration, those people have jobs and Chrysler becomes a private company again," Dunn said.

"There is a plan. It has been working," Goolsbee said, noting the creation of more 1 million jobs in the past six months and more than 2 million over the past 15 months.

Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, disagreed last week when announcing the formal launch of his 2012 presidential campaign.

Citing Obama's economic policies, Romney summed up his campaign message succinctly, saying: "Barack Obama has failed America."

CNN's Gabriella Schwarz and Laura Klairmont contributed to this story.