MANCHESTER - An A-list of national Republican figures who were in the city Saturday for an event dubbed the New Hampshire Freedom Summit found a receptive audience for criticism of President Obama, the Affordable Care Act and most things Democratic.
Arranged by two conservative political groups - Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United - the daylong meeting drew an estimated 700 people who, the organizers said, snapped up all the available tickets.
Participants included U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas; U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Louis Gohmert of Texas and Steve King of Iowa; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, business tycoon Donald Trump, Fox News television host Mike Huckabee and radio personality Laura Ingraham.
As the opening speaker, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire urged the politically involved to work to return the Senate to Republican control in the November election.
While refraining from mentioning Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen by name, Ayotte called for New Hampshire Republican activists to work toward a Republican majority in the Senate.
"To repeal Obamacare, we have to win elections, and that starts with a Republican takeover of the United States Senate," Ayotte said. "When Republicans take over the Untied States Senate, (Majority Leader) Harry Reid will go, and that is a cause for celebration."
Ayotte laid out Republican complaints about the Obama administration, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to claims the IRS targeted conservative groups in its enforcement of the federal ban on the use of tax-exempt entities to finance political campaigns.
"Too often, the solution to every problem is bigger, more intrusive, more burdensome government," Ayotte said.
Ayotte also spelled out complaints she and many conservatives have with the Affordable Care Act, ranging from limited access to medical providers in New Hampshire to rules that she said are keeping people with cancer from continuing to see doctors at the famed Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Sen. Paul, in a stump-style speech, called on the audience for action to displace the Democrats
"There comes a time when a country passes the time of no return; that time is near," Paul said. "Will you stand like men and women of courage and fight for your freedom?"
While Paul stressed many of his libertarian principles, he also called on Republicans to "branch out" and "become a bigger party and a party that can win."
But Paul's way to become a bigger party is not to retreat from core positions.
"Some say we need to dilute our message, be a little more like the Democrats," Paul said. "Hogwash. Our problem is not that we are too bold, our problem is that we are too timid ... we need to reach out to people who we have not been hitting."
But Paul cautioned that trading federal dollars for votes - whether through aid to the states or through personal entitlements - is not the way to build the party.
"You get free stuff, but you never get out of poverty; you get more benefits, but your groceries cost more and your gas costs more," he said. "The policy of the President to say, 'Hey, send me some of your money, I'll send it back later,' doesn't work."
Paul called for an economy built by entrepreneurs driven by a government that takes less in taxes, rather than targeting tax dollars to be spent on specific programs.
Paul was joined by Trump in advocating an approach to government that prefers a free market-approach to solving problems. Trump spoke about what he doesn't like about the Obama administration and how his entrepreneurial background could help make things right in the country.
"Obamacare is the single greatest lie I have ever witnessed, and I've been in politics and watching politics for a very long time," Trump said to a roar of approval from his audience.
Trump touched on unlawful immigration, saying, "I'm a builder. It'll be a wall they can't get over." He said the key to making America strong again is making America wealthy again.
"We don't need competent leaders, we need unbelievable, genuinely smart-as-hell leaders because we're no longer at the stage where we need somebody who is competent; we need a lot more than that."
Several allusions to a potential candidacy were made. Trump noted that his organization had recently bought a former U.S. Post Office building in Washington and was remodeling it as a hotel.
"It's right next to the White House," Trump said. "If I don't make one thing, I can have the other as a fallback."
But in a session with reporters, Trump said he probably won't make up his mind on whether to make a run for President this year and enter the lead-off New Hampshire primary, although he acknowledged its importance in the process.
"I have great support in New Hampshire. I love the people of New Hampshire," Trump said in response to a question from the New Hampshire Sunday News. "New Hampshire is a very, very powerful place to run."
Most of the speakers tried to equate a free-market economy with liberty and freedom.
Sen. Cruz told reporters that attendance at the conference was a clear sign of support for restraining government influence on the economy.
"I'm so encouraged to see hundreds of grass-roots activists standing up to take our country back," the Texas Republican said. "The American people are fed up with Washington, they're fed up with career politicians in both parties, and they want to get back to the free-market principles and constitutional liberty that have been the hallmark of our great nation."
However, Cruz appeared to dodge a question about whether Senate Majority Leader Reid should put to a vote the House-passed budget proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Ohio, and wouldn't say whether he would vote for it. Asked about Ohio's new voting rules that some say limit opportunities for some pro-Democratic voters, Cruz said it was a state issue.
Asked whether U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown had staked out too many positions to the left of traditional GOP conservatives, Cruz suggested all that matters is that a Republican is elected.
"That's a question for the men and women of New Hampshire," Cruz said. "What I want to see from New Hampshire is a Republican representing New Hampshire in the United States Senate."
Gingrich was the elder statesman of the event. He predicted Democrats would "lose disastrously" in the 2014 midterm elections.
"We have bureaucrats who are not public servants, they are public overlords," Gingrich said. "I believe if we move from the right-left fights of the last 80 years and we set the tone and offer better ideas and better solutions, we're right at the edge of being able to say, 'Why do you want those prison guards to entrap you.'"