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In N.H. visit, Romney takes Obama to task on economy

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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BARTLETT, N.H. — Likely Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney last night stepped up his attacks on Barack Obama, saying the president had mishandled the economy and made the recession last longer.

The former Massachusetts governor also tried to fend off attacks from his own party over the state’s universal health care plan he signed into law in 2006.

In his first public Granite State appearance in the year in which he’s expected to announce another presidential bid, Romney addressed the health care plan in some of his most extensive comments to date.

Without offering specifics, he conceded that there were mistakes made in the law. “Our experiment wasn’t perfect. Some things worked, some things didn’t, and some things I’d change,’’ Romney said, without elaborating on those changes.

But speaking at the Lincoln-Reagan Dinner at the Attitash Grand Summit Hotel — where “Romney for President’’ signs lined the road — he focused mostly on Obama.

He called him “unprepared and unequal to the task of leading the free world,’’ and the former venture capitalist said the president didn’t have the skills to bring the country out of the recession.

Despite lacking extensive foreign policy experience, Romney did not shy away from criticizing the president’s handling of the recent turmoil in the Middle East.

“He and his administration were caught off guard. The president and his team looked like deer in the headlights,’’ Romney said, as about 300 guests dined on chicken marsala, Yankee pot roast, or glazed salmon.

“Instead of leading the world, the president has been tiptoeing behind the Europeans.’’

Romney’s signature health care plan in Massachusetts is seen as an albatross around his neck in a Republican electorate hungry to repeal Obama’s national plan.

Romney has come under attack over the past week from fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats, who are eager to point out the similarities between the two plans.

“You may have noticed that the president and his people spend more time talking about me and my Massachusetts health care than “Entertainment Tonight’’ spends talking about Charlie Sheen,’’ Romney said. “Our approach was a state plan intended to address problems that were in many ways unique to Massachusetts. What we did was what the Constitution intended for states to do; we were one of the laboratories of democracy.’’

Romney, who in previous speeches has generally avoided talking about health care, mentioned “Obamacare’’ six times last night, and also said definitively that he would repeal Obama’s plan.

“Obamacare is bad law, constitutionally. It’s bad policy, it is bad for America’s families, and that’s one reason President Obama will be a one-term president,’’ he said.

“The federal government isn’t the answer for running health care any more than it’s the answer for running Amtrak or the Post Office. An economy run by the federal government doesn’t work for Europe and it won’t work here.’’

Romney’s speech — before his most prominent public audience since he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference last month in Washington — is the beginning of what is likely to become a relentless focus on the crucial primary battleground as Romney continues to lay the groundwork for an expected presidential bid.

“We liked New Hampshire so much,’’ Romney said last night. “We may just decide to play a double-header here. Only time will tell.’’

His wife, Ann, on Wednesday is planning to attend a house party in Hampton, N.H., in her first campaign-type event since 2008.

“It’s like a duck; there’s a lot more activity going on under the water than on top of the water,’’ said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican operative who directed Romney’s primary campaign in 2008. “But slowly but surely as the snow melts, the candidates come.’’

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of New Hampshire for a Romney presidential campaign, and early polls indicate he is far ahead of any other prospective candidate. But that is also the risk for Romney, particularly in a state that relishes picking an underdog.

“As the front-runner with 40 percent in the polls, everyone’s going to be taking shots at him,’’ said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state Republican Party.

“It’s in their interest to delay the start of this thing as long as they can.’’

Other candidates are also picking up their schedules. During this upcoming week alone, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and former US senator Rick Santorum are all planning to be in the Granite State.

Much of Romney’s speech last night was devoted to the economy, which most political observers say would be his strong suit.

“Now I like President Obama, but he doesn’t have a clue how jobs are created,’’ Romney said. “He doesn’t know what goes through an entrepreneur’s mind when she borrows and scrapes to get the money to start a new company— because he’s never done it himself.’’

Hours before he took the podium, the Democratic National Party pointed to Romney’s record as governor, where Massachusetts gained 1 percent in payroll jobs over his term, compared with 5.3 percent in the nation as a whole.

Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.