APPLETON, Wis. -- Taking the stage with a new ally and a new stump speech, Mitt Romney pledged to turn the country away from "a government-centered society" to the "opportunity society" rooted in the lessons of his experience as a businessman.
In an appearance at Lawrence University, the Republican front-runner renewed his characterization of the Obama administration as a threat to free enterprise while offering a broad, thematic outline of his own goals for the economy.
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 here by Rep. Paul Ryan, the influential Wisconsin congressman who chairs the House Budget Committee, hours after the lawmaker had endorsed him. Mr. Ryan's backing buttressed the front-runner's conservative credentials against GOP rivals who continue to make the argument that the former Massachusetts governor is too moderate to appeal to the party's increasingly conservative base.
"The choice before us could not be more profound. Barack Obama and I have fundamentally different visions for America," Mr. Romney said before 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 improvements in a variety of economic indicators, Mr. Romney reminded the crowd of several hundred of the economy's continuing ills.
"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."
And in rhetoric that echoed the tea party critique of the administration, Mr. Romney said, "One must ask whether we will still be a free enterprise nation and whether we will still have economic freedom. America is on the cusp of having a government-run economy. President Obama is transforming America into something very different than the land of the free and the land of opportunity."
Former 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, however, showed the former governor with a 40-33 percent lead over Mr. Santorum here, with Mr. Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul well behind.
In an interview with CNN, Mr. Santorum continued to insist that Mr. Romney would be a fatally flawed candidate in the context of the debate on health care spotlighted by this week's Supreme Court arguments.
"This is a colossal issue, and it's the issue that Gov. Romney is the least qualified to make because he was the author of the blueprint of Obamacare," Mr. Santorum said.
"This is a major problem when the huge Achilles heel of this president, where three-quarters of the American public disagree with this mandate, and ... yet Gov. Romney started the ball rolling in Massachusetts and then advocated for this mandate at the federal level. Frankly, I think he'll be destroyed by President Obama on this issue come the fall."
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.