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COLUMBIA, S.C. — The leading Republican presidential candidates spent Labor Day declaring their fealty to limited government as they sought to demonstrate credibility with a Tea Party movement that has seized the political energy of their party.

The candidates also lashed out at President Barack Obama’s economic policies as they prepared for a televised debate in California on Wednesday and the president’s jobs speech to Congress a day later.

Grim economic news has framed the Republican presidential campaign as a referendum on Obama’s fiscal leadership and a contest about which of the Republican rivals is best positioned to turn the country’s fortunes around.

But the president’s would-be replacements are also preparing for months of political combat among themselves as they seek the Republican nomination. At a wonkish policy forum here Monday, five of the Republican candidates offered a preview of the intraparty fight for support from evangelical and Tea Party voters.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota accused Obama of “stealing from generations unborn” by vastly increasing government spending. She pledged to repeal “Obamacare,” end the appointment of powerful government “czars” to oversee policy areas like immigration and the environment, and to eliminate or at least shrink the Department of Education. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said Americans “simply have to rein back government to be what it was considered by the founders” and criticized Obama’s three years in office.

Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather Pizza, argued for a radically revamped tax code. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, focused on the theme of American exceptionalism and the limits of government, making reference to the Federalist Papers and the court system. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas stuck to the themes that have long defined him: an abhorrence of money printing, making war, corporate subsidies and the role of government beyond the courts and defense.

But the broad focus of the Republican candidates on Monday was clear: to align themselves with the Tea Party.

At a breakfast earlier Monday in New Hampshire, Romney declared that he “couldn’t agree more” with the Tea Party’s demands for smaller government.

“There’s great interest to say, ‘Oh, the Tea Party, oh, and the mainstream Republicans, oh they’re fighting and they’re different,”’ Romney said in response to a question from a supporter. “The Tea Party has at its center core a belief that government is too big. Sound familiar?”