NEW ORLEANS — If Republicans meeting in New Orleans are to be believed, entire appeals courts would be dismantled, four years of President Barack Obama’s time in power would be undone and the entire economic crisis would end the day the next president takes power.

Tough talk from the candidates vying for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination has escalated in recent weeks into a game of one-upsmanship at a thousands-strong Republican gathering.

Their rhetoric doesn’t always match with reality. It might not matter.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would unleash as many as 200 executive orders on his first day in office to un-do Obama’s four years in the White House. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum says “Barack Obama does not believe in you; he believes in himself.” Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said the United States’ efforts to help Libya’s rebels “may contain al-Qaida of North Africa” and Obama “instructed our ally Israel to shrink its borders to an indefensible level”; none offered concrete details to back up the rhetorical gifts to the party’s base.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s economic plan anticipates growing the U.S. economy by an unprecedented 5 percent each year for a decade.

Even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, nominal frontrunner in a race that generally lacks one, told a store owner in New Hampshire he’d be back in four years — “only next time, it will be a larger group. I will probably have Secret Service.”

No one ever said the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination lack ambition — or bravado. But the questionable claims might haunt them in the head-to-head with Obama.

Take Gingrich’s pledge to abolish the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and retool the Environmental Protection Agency. Pawlenty said he would do away with any government agency that duplicates a service available in the private sector, such as mail or rail travel. And Santorum hammered Obama in a foreign policy address: “We sided with evil because our president believes our enemies are legitimately aggrieved and thus we have no standing to intervene (in Iran).”

Candidates always seek to set themselves apart. But as this crop tries to outflank each other, they may erode their credibility among the moderates and independents who ultimately decide the presidential race. Absent from this weekend’s Republican Leadership Conference: Romney, Pawlenty and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

“The election will be decided by a little sliver of people, about 20 percent of the American voters, who do not see politics horizontally, as the left or the right. … They ask themselves this simple question: if we elect this guy, will things get better or will they get worse?” warned former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 presidential contender who decided against another run in 2012.

Huckabee challenged his fellow Republicans to be serious about improving voters’ lives, “not only the party who can tell us what’s wrong with the guys over there.”

Obama faces a potentially tough road to a second term. The economic recovery has not come about as quickly as Americans would like, gas prices are high and unemployment has remained stubbornly high.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi, warned that any political sideshow only helps Obama distract from a struggling economy many party elders believe should be the sole issue of debate.

“If we let people in the Obama campaign take America’s eye off the ball, then that’s their only chance to win,” Barbour said.