By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The slow-forming 2012 Republican race is starting to gain focus, with candidates competing to see who can hammer President Barack Obama the hardest for his economic leadership.
Republicans have launched a volley of attacks on Obama's economic policies in the last week, hoping to capitalize on what polls show is broad public dissatisfaction with how he is handling the economy and the budget deficit.
Next week's nationally televised debate in New Hampshire gives Republicans their best forum so far to make their case on what promises to be their central argument in 2012 -- that Obama should be fired for his economic stewardship.
"Given the state of the economy and the public's economic exasperation, this election is going to be about one thing -- who can fix the economy. Because Obama hasn't done it," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, an aide on Mitt Romney's 2008 White House campaign and now an informal Romney adviser.
Former governors Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota lead a Republican field with few ideological differences that has been united in attacking Obama for tax and spending policies they say stifled the economic recovery.
Pawlenty offered his own economic prescription on Tuesday, presenting a plan that would restructure and slash taxes for individuals and corporations and include a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
"He has spent three years dividing our nation, fanning the flames of class envy and resentment to deflect attention from his own failures and the economic hardship they have visited on America," Pawlenty said of the president in a speech at the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught.
Democrats were quick to ridicule the plan as a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations that would explode the deficit.
"It's a prescription for economic disaster that would fall squarely on the backs of seniors and working families," said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
FEW DIFFERENCES ON ECONOMY
Romney and the other Republican candidates -- former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Senator Rick Santorum, former pizza executive Herman Cain and Representative Ron Paul -- have offered their own economic critiques of Obama as they jockey for Republican primary support.
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who served two terms as governor of Utah, and Representative Michele Bachmann also have traveled to early voting states and are expected to enter the race in the next few weeks.
Santorum, a staunch social conservative, formally launched his campaign on Monday with a broadside against Obama that accused him of wrecking the economy.
The Republican contenders are all conservatives who want to cut spending and reduce taxes, and all have pledged allegiance to Representative Paul Ryan's proposal to restructure the Medicare health program for the elderly.
But they offer sharper differences in experience and perspective. Romney, Pawlenty and Huntsman hope to highlight their executive experience as governors handling budgets. Romney and Huntsman will feature their business backgrounds.
Bachmann, Santorum and Cain will vie for the backing of social and religious conservatives, but the growth of the Tea Party and the coming clash in Congress over the debt ceiling has made that bloc more responsive to economic arguments.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published on Tuesday found the country broadly pessimistic about the economy. Obama received record high disapproval ratings on the economy and deficit, with about 6 in 10 voters disapproving.
The poll found Obama leading five of the six Republican candidates surveyed in a head-to-head matchup -- Gingrich, Hunstman, Pawlenty, Bachmann and Sarah Palin -- but slightly trailed Romney among registered voters.
Seven months before the first nominating contest, the field of contenders for the right to challenge Obama in 2012 is largely set. But polls show lingering unhappiness among some Republicans about their choices, leading to continued intrigue about other high-profile names that might enter the fray.
Palin, the former vice presidential nominee, ignited a frenzy of speculation about her plans with last week's publicity-grabbing East Coast bus tour, and Texas Governor Rick Perry now says he is thinking about a potential bid.
But time is running short to organize. The failed White House campaigns of Democrat Wesley Clark in 2004 and Republican Fred Thompson in 2008 showed late-starting candidates are often better in concept than in practice.
"The magical non-candidate is only magical as long as they stay out of the race," said Republican Dan Schnur, an aide to John McCain's 2000 presidential race who is now at the University of Southern California.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)