Republicans eyeing the 2016 White House race battered President Barack Obama's healthcare law
and nicked each other 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 House 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 Manchester, 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 isn't planned for another two years.
"It's the unofficial kickoff of the 2016 process," said Republican operative Mike Biundo, who managed former Pennsylvania Sen. 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 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
resigned after leading the rocky rollout of the program derided as "Obamacare."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz declared that one resignation is not enough. "We are going to repeal every single word of Obamacare," said the first-term senator and favorite of the small government Tea Party movement.
Another Tea Party favorite, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, insisted 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, Rep. Paul Ryan
. The budget, approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives in recent days, transforms entitlement programs such as Medicare
— which provide healthcare coverage to the elderly and poor — to help reduce federal spending.
Former Arkansas Gov. 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 Congress will be at stake. Republicans are fighting to win the six seats they need to claim the 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 U.S.
The industrialist Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, which co-hosted Saturday's summit, has already spent millions of dollars on health care-related attack ads aimed at vulnerable Democratic senators in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and elsewhere.
Sebelius resigned on Friday, days after the Obama administration announced that enrollment in the federal and state exchanges set up to offer subsidized private insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act had grown to 7.5 million, a figure that exceeded expectations and gave Democrats a surprise success after a disastrous rollout. It was welcome news for Democratic incumbents who've been forced to defend their support for the unpopular law.
In a conference call Friday, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen insisted that "Democrats are not running away from the Affordable Care Act."
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mike Czin noted that Republican opposition to the health care law was the foundation of the party's unsuccessful political strategy in 2012. He said that the debate has changed now that the law has been implemented and millions of people are enjoying its benefits.
"That's a debate that we're going to have, and we're eager to have," Czin said.
At the same time, Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, called for Republicans to defend their support for a their budget plan introduced this week that would repeal the health care law, transform Medicare, increase prescription drug costs for seniors, and enact deep cuts in education.
Campaigning in Iowa the night before, Ryan defended his recently passed budget plan as a sign of growing Republican unity.
"Some people wanted to go further, some people thought it went too far. The point is we unified around these common principles in a plan," the Wisconsin congressman said after headlining an Iowa Republican dinner. "That's very important to me — which is we can't just oppose, we have to propose."
Back in New Hampshire, conservatives also criticized another potential presidential contender who was not in attendance, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who recently suggested that many immigrants enter the United States illegally because of love for their families.
Trump described Bush's suggestion as "out there."