* Bernanke comes under fire in Republican debate
* Federal government blamed for economic woes (Recasts with start of debate)
By John Whitesides and Ros Krasny
HANOVER, N.H., Oct 11 (Reuters) - Republican presidential contenders blamed the federal government on Tuesday for the struggling U.S. economy and harshly criticized Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke during the early stages of a 2012 debate.
Several of the Republicans seeking the nomination to unseat President Barack Obama in 2012 said government policies had led to the economic slowdown and refused to place blame on Wall Street or corporations.
"I think if you look at the problem with the economic meltdown, you can trace it right back to the federal government," U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann said in a debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
"It was the federal government that demanded that banks and mortgage companies lower platinum level lending standards to new lows," she said. "It was the federal government that pushed the subprime loans."
Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich said politicians were to blame for the economy and pointed the finger at Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
"The first person to fire is Bernanke, who is a disastrous chairman of the Federal Reserve. The second person to fire is Geithner," he said.
"The fact is, in both the Bush and the Obama administrations, the fix has been in and I think it's perfectly reasonable for people to be angry," he said. "But let's be clear who put the fix in: The fix was put in by the federal government."
The debate, the seventh in the Republican race for the White House, was focused on economic issues.
The candidates also took shots at Obama for his role in the the sagging economy.
"Three years ago we selected a person who'd never had any leadership experience, never worked in the private sector, never had the opportunity to actually bring people together, and he hasn't been able to do so," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said.
"He said he'd bring us hope and change. Instead he's divided the nation and tried to blame other people," he said.
Romney, whose 2008 White House bid failed, has retaken the lead in polls over Texas Governor Rick Perry but has still not won over conservatives who remember his past support in Massachusetts for abortion rights and a healthcare mandate.
Romney's campaign got a big boost on Tuesday when New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, who is popular within the party, endorsed his candidacy. [ID:nN1E79A17M]
The debate in New Hampshire comes three months before the first voting in the Republican race.
Perry was under pressure in the debate after a string of poor performances cost him his front-runner role.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Paul Simao)