Romney criticizes Obama before Wisconsin college audience


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APPLETON, Wisc. -- Taking the stage with a new ally, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney pledged to turn the country away from "a government-centered society," to the "opportunity society" rooted in the lessons he learned as a businessman

In a speech at Lawrence University, the Republican front-runner renewed his assault on the Obama administration's economic policies while delivering a broad, thematic outline of his approach to the economy. He said he would repeal "Obamacare" and the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory legislation on his way to shrinking the federal government.

It was Mr. Romney's first campaign appearance in Wisconsin, a state that votes Tuesday along with Maryland and the District of Columbia, in contests that are expected to further pad his delegate lead in the GOP nomination sweepstakes.

The former Massachusetts governor was introduced by Mr. Ryan, the influential Wisconsin congressman, hours after he had received Mr. Ryan's endorsement. In a 25-minute speech, Mr. Romney spoke as if he were already the nominee, focusing solely on the incumbent and never mentioning his remaining GOP rivals.

"The choice before us could not be more profound. Barack Obama and I have fundamentally different visions for America," Mr. Romney told the university crowd.

"He has spent the last 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 free enterprises."

Mr. Romney repeated the phrase, "government-centered society," several times as he recited a litany of economic ills that have coincided with the Obama administration.

"In Barack Obama's government-centered society," he argued, "tax increases become not only a necessity but also a desired tool for social justice."

While Democrats have taken cautious encouragement from recent upturns in a variety of economic indicators, Mr. Romney reminded the crowd of several of the economy's continuing problems.

"Long-term unemployment is the worst since the Great Depression. Over 46 million Americans are now living in poverty, more than ever before in our nation's history. In households with single moms, over 30 percent are living in poverty," he said.

And confronting an issue that Democrats hope to use against the opponent of auto bailouts, he said, "Over 2,000 Chrysler and GM dealerships have closed and 22 automobile manufacturing plants have been shuttered or idled."

Painting the man he hopes to oppose in November as an opponent of free enterprise, he said, "Out-of-touch liberals like Barack Obama say they want a strong economy, but they really don't like businesses very much. ... So it's like saying you love omelets but don't like eggs."

Mr. Ryan's presence and his fresh endorsement were calculated to buttress Mr. Romney's conservative credentials against GOP opponents who have argued that he is a moderate out of touch with the rightward drift of his party.

"I think we need to coalesce as conservatives around Mitt Romney and focus on the big task at hand, which is defeating Barack Obama in the fall," he said in a morning interview on Fox.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were campaigning elsewhere in the state, which hosts what is considered the only one of the three Tuesday contests in which Mr. Romney is not considered a prohibitive favorite.

A new NBC News/Marist poll showed the former governor with a 40-33 percent lead over Mr. Santorum here, with Mr. Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul well behind.


Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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