* Candidates batter Obama’s economic and foreign policies
* Decry government intrusiveness in private markets, lives
* Controversy over restrictions on visual media (Adds quotes, background)
By John Whitesides
GREENVILLE, S.C., May 5 (Reuters) - A handful of little-known Republican presidential candidates touted their conservative credentials and vied for a brief shot at the U.S. political spotlight on Thursday during the first debate of the 2012 White House campaign.
With the Republican Party’s most high-profile contenders skipping the event, the five participants used the nationally televised forum to slam President Barack Obama’s leadership and attack what they called his misguided policies on the economy, healthcare and foreign affairs.
“The issues that have come up while he’s been president, he’s gotten them wrong strategically every single time,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the lone top-tier candidate at the debate, said of Obama’s foreign policy.
Along with Pawlenty, the debate in the influential early voting state of South Carolina featured four longshot contenders — U.S. Representative Ron Paul, former Senator Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former pizza executive Herman Cain.
All five decried what they said was a growing government intrusiveness in private markets and private lives. They predicted Obama would be beaten in the 2012 election because of the weak economy and the growing budget deficit.
“The economy will be the big issue. My theory is people vote from their bellies,” Paul said, calling it Obama’s biggest vulnerability. “We are in big trouble, prices are going up.”
Continued economic improvement will be critical to Obama’s re-election hopes but his eventual Republican opponent will face a difficult task beating an incumbent president who hopes to raise a record $1 billion for his campaign.
The absence of more high-profile candidates like Mitt Romney was a testament to the slow-starting and unsettled Republican race for the right to face Obama. Most of the party’s big names have delayed a decision on entry.
Four potential Republican candidates who are scoring well in early opinion polls — Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich — have made no formal move to run.
The debate was overshadowed by Obama’s trip on Thursday to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.
That visit came four days after U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in a watershed achievement for Obama. But several of the Republicans said information that led to bin Laden resulted from enhanced interrogation techniques criticized by Obama.
“A good job. I tip my cap to him in that moment. That moment is not the sum total of America’s foreign policy,” Pawlenty said.
The debate was an opportunity for Pawlenty to showcase his fiscal and socially conservative views for a national audience, but he did not attack Obama as strongly as his longshot rivals did. And none of the candidates would criticize the Republicans who did not show up.
All of the candidates hammered Obama’s healthcare overhaul, with Pawlenty calling it “one of the most partisan, misguided pieces of legislation in the country — it is going to make healthcare worse, not better.”
Santorum said Obama’s outreach to the growing bloc of Hispanic voters was “a political game” and questioned his sincerity about passing a broad immigration reform bill.
“This is a political issue for the president. He’s playing political games with a very important group of people,” Santorum said.
About 300 Tea Party supporters rallied in downtown Greenville before the debate and Republican Governor Nikki Haley urged the candidates to be clear about how they would turn around the economy and help working families.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd said she was not disappointed with the low turnout for the debate.
“Who knows? We might have the next candidate sitting on the stage,” she said. “Our job is not to set the field. Our job is to showcase the field.”
The debate was marred by controversy over restrictions imposed by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party barring the media from taking photographs of the debate. Fox News also did not allow news agencies to distribute video of the event internationally.
The Associated Press chose not to cover the debate at all in protest of the photography limits, while Reuters did not cover it photographically. (Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Todd Eastham)