APPLETON, Wis. – As leading Republicans begin to coalesce around his candidacy, Mitt Romney struck a new tone on the campaign trail on Friday, pulling together his stump-speech highlights into a sharper narrative about the Obama administration’s economic policies and the kind of president voters can expect in a Romney administration.
The GOP front-runner spoke for 25 minutes at a theater on the campus of Lawrence University without once mentioning his rivals in the primary field. He shifted his focus to a lengthy analysis of the economic recovery under President Obama, laying out the problems he says the current administration has left unaddressed.
"Under President Obama, America hasn't been working,” Romney told the packed theater in advance of Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary. “The ironic tragedy is that the community organizer who wanted to help those hurt by a plant closing became the president on whose watch more jobs were lost than any other time since the Great Depression.”
The former Massachusetts governor, who read his prepared speech from a teleprompter, as he often does with major addresses, spent several minutes ticking off a list of what he called “basic facts” that point to a poorly performing economy on Obama’s watch. He said that 800,000 Americans lost their jobs, 46 million are living in poverty, 2.8 million homes have been foreclosed, and more than 2,000 Chrysler and General Motors dealerships have been shuttered.
“For the first time since World War II, our national debt is greater in size than our entire United States economy,” Romney said, later adding, “President Obama did not cause the recession, but he most certainly failed to lead the recovery.”
Romney was harshly critical of Obama’s economic stimulus legislation, which he said “protected government, it did not protect the people.
“It was promised to hold unemployment below 8 percent. It did not. President Obama's stimulus was as ineffective as it was expensive,” he said. “His 'Obamacare' didn't create jobs, either. It discouraged small businesses and health companies from hiring new workers. … He also failed on so many other promises, it’s hard to list them all. But on the issue of jobs, he failed. But on one goal, he succeeded: that was to raise energy prices.”
Romney presented an image of the country under Obama stifled by excessive government regulation and overreach, contrasting that image with the “opportunity society” of a Romney administration.
“The choice before us could not be more clear and profound,” he said. “Barack Obama and I have fundamentally different visions for America. He spent the last three or four years laying the foundation for a new government-centered society. I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of our opportunity society, led by free people and their free enterprises.”
The speech elicited a response from the Obama reelection campaign that also foreshadowed possible fall campaign themes.
Spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement: “Whether he is willfully ignoring the facts or rooting for failure, Mitt Romney’s speech overlooked key facts about the economic progress we’ve made under President Obama’s leadership. … We’ve seen what happens when Mitt Romney is in charge and it’s greatly at odds with his message today of more jobs, less debt, and smaller government. During his four years as governor, Massachusetts had the fourth-worst job-creation rate of any state in the nation, debt increased by 16 percent, government jobs grew six times as fast as private-sector jobs, and taxes increased by $750 million each year.”
Romney supporters have been encouraging the candidate to speak more personally and from the heart on the stump, and he used part of his speech on Friday to tell a long anecdote about his early decision-making as a young man striking out on his own. Romney said that his father, George Romney, was unable to go to college and instead worked as an apprentice to a carpenter. He later rose to become head of American Motors and the governor of Michigan. Romney said his father was able to give his children the education he never had, and that after graduating from college, he left the state rather than live in his father’s large shadow.
“I loved cars, and I was very tempted to stay in Michigan and go into the car business as he did,” Romney said. “But I knew that I’d always wonder if my success there was due to my father. And so when I got out of school, out of business school, I stayed in Massachusetts and got an entry-level job at the best company that would hire me.”
Romney was introduced at the event by Rep. Paul Ryan, a prominent House member from Wisconsin who has led the fight for a Republican budget that sharply curtails spending for social programs. Ryan is among several top Republicans who have endorsed Romney over the last week, in a distinct movement in Romney’s direction after he decisively won the Illinois primary.
After sitting out the race for months, leading Republicans one by one announced they are getting behind Romney, including Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a tea party favorite; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising party star; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
Romney’s shift to more of a general-election tone has come with a notable increase in security. For the first time, people and members of the press attending Romney events have to pass through metal detectors.
Sarah B. Boxer contributed contributed to this article.