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White House hopefuls gather for N.H. GOP summit

NASHUA — Republican presidential hopefuls jockeying for the affections of New Hampshire voters trained their rhetoric Friday on President Obama’s foreign policy, blaming the man they hope to succeed for what they call a weakened country.

Gathered here for a state party fundraiser and campaign cattle call, a string of speakers used variations on the same theme – “weakness” – to target both Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is vying for the Democratic nomination.

“We have a president that’s eviscerated our military capabilities,” US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said during Friday evening’s keynote speech at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

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Rubio’s indictment of Obama’s performance echoed similar critiques sounded throughout the day. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, like Rubio considered a top-tier contender, offered a less pointed assessment of Obama, but defended his own record when one audience questioner asked about his conservative credentials.

“My record is a conservative one,” Bush said. “It’s an ‘I’m-not-kidding’ conservative one and it’s a record of accomplishment.”

Bush also brushed off concerns that he is headed to the nomination as a form of “coronation.”

“I will have to earn it if I get into the arena. I will have to earn it. No one’s going to give it to me. That is more than apparent,” he said.

Other speakers focused heavily on Obama, providing a litany of examples where, they said, Obama had failed to project American strength adequately overseas.

“We have a weak president who has weakened our country,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who eschewed a lengthy speech for a question-and-answer session in a crowded hotel banquet room on Friday afternoon.

Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton called Obama “weak and feckless.”

“This is a president whose policies are weak, whose policies are apologetic, and in many ways incoherent,” said US Representative Peter King of New York.

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Former Texas governor Rick Perry called Clinton “the orchestrator” of US policies in the Middle East and with Russia that have left the United States imperiled. The red-meat rhetoric is designed to appeal to the GOP faithful gathered to audition the 19 potential or declared candidates scheduled to speak Friday and Saturday at the First-in-the-Nation Republican Leadership Summit.

Granite State activists are just beginning to sort through one of the historic primary’s largest and most unwieldy field in decades. And candidates have been increasing their travel to the state in recent weeks.

The weekend conference serves as one of the signal early events of the nominating contest.

“This is a great opportunity for these candidates to audition in front of the state’s Republican leadership -- the group of people who will decide who gets to speak at county dinners and barbecues this spring and summer,” said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist who advised Texas governor Rick Perry during the 2012 campaign but is unaffiliated this cycle.

Former New York governor George Pataki addressed a crowded banquet room at the Crowne Plaza hotel on Friday morning, followed by entrepreneur Dennis Michael Lynch.

The speeches have also laid bare foreign policy and national security fissures within the party. King, a hawkish member of both the homeland security and intelligence committees, defended National Security Agency intelligence gathering, which has come under fire from more libertarian Republicans, as an “effective necessary component” of national defense.

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“We don’t all agree,” said King. “We have definite views.”

On Saturday, speakers include former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and businessman Donald Trump.

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker round out the Saturday lineup.

Globe reporters provided live updates from the event:


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.