Romney ready to talk specifics on economy

Campaign kicks off in N.H. today

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney will begin to engage voters more directly and offer more specifics on policy after his formal entry in the race for the GOP presidential nomination today, his advisers say.

The former Massachusetts governor is expected to focus on jobs and the economy in his kickoff announcement at a farm in New Hampshire. He will hold his first town hall of the campaign tomorrow, also in New Hampshire, a state that is vital to his chances of winning the nomination.

After a lengthy precampaign buildup that has been light on public events — and even lighter on policy proposals — Romney’s strategists are promising specific plans to curb spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Those plans, they say, will be rolled out in the coming weeks or months.

“He will have detailed proposals on the economy, and with respect to entitlement reform,’’ said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney campaign adviser. “The right time for him to put those forward is after he becomes a formal candidate — and ideally around the time when people are paying attention more closely. Those will be coming.’’

Romney is expected to deliver a forceful speech this afternoon, criticizing Obama’s handling of the economy, touting his own business background, and calling for strict limits on government spending. He has previously called for capping federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product. Democrats, meanwhile, are poised to continue focusing most of their attacks on Romney, with plans for conference calls and the release of a video tagging him as a wishy-washy politician.

The slow-to-start 2012 GOP primary contest has benefited Romney. Because of his high name recognition, ties to the GOP establishment, and a large early-state campaign network, he has been able to avoid the busy public schedules of some of his lesser-known rivals.

He also has largely avoided taking firm positions on many of the major topics of the day, including the controversial House GOP plan to partially privatize Medicare. His most significant policy statement so far was the one he delivered in Ann Arbor, Mich., last month, when he defended his Massachusetts health care law while promising to repeal President Obama’s health care overhaul if he were elected.

Now, he will face greater pressure to fill in the blanks. As a full-fledged candidate, for instance, Romney is expected to join others in the shifting GOP field in a debate in New Hampshire on June 13, the first opportunity for his opponents to zero in on the nominal front-runner.

“This is a pivot time to a different level of campaigning,’’ said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and is now unaligned. “After his announcement, he’s in the NFL and every day is going to be a full-contact day on not only what his campaign is trying to advocate but also what’s going on in the world.’’

Romney is making his announcement as campaign activity in New Hampshire is building. Today and tomorrow alone there will be at least three other potential candidates in the Granite State, with Sarah Palin expected to descend on her bus tour to unnamed locations; Jon Huntsman boarding a Lake Winnipesaukee boat cruise; and Rudy Giuliani planning a visit.

“Now you’re going to start to see the field be established, and you’re going to start to see more candidates, including Mitt Romney, speak very specifically about the difference between their presidential campaign and the policies of the president,’’ said Representative Frank Guinta, a New Hampshire Republican who has not endorsed anyone.

“Romney being an expert on the economy, I think you’re going to see him have very specific proposals on what needs to be done and what he would do,’’ he added. “New Hampshire voters will be demanding answers to those questions.’’

So far, Romney has been largely focused on fund-raising, crisscrossing the country to meet with high-dollar contributors to stockpile a campaign account large enough to intimidate would-be challengers. He raised $10.3 million in a single-day money blitz last month, and published reports have indicated his goal for the primary is at least $50 million.

Romney has been spending at least 80 percent of his time recently on fund-raising, according to one campaign aide, and that figure will be likely to drop slightly as he does more public appearances. He has an aggressive series of fund-raisers scheduled for next week in New York, Missouri, and Michigan, and across Florida in mid-June.

“The excitement helps the fund-raising,’’ said Mel Sembler, a top fund-raiser in Florida who is part of Romney’s fund-raising team. “He’s moving around the country and meeting the contributors.’’

His advisers have been happy not to seize public attention, a far different tack than they pursued four years ago when they were eager to get his name into the news at every opportunity.

“The under-the-radar approach worked for a while [but] it really is time to get in and at least sound the ceremonial bell,’’ said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College. “His folks are thinking, ‘It’s time to get in and lay claim that I’m the guy, I’ve got the money, I’ve got the experience, let me put this unease to rest. I’m the guy.’ ’’

But so far he has focused almost all of his rhetorical energy in criticizing decisions made by President Obama, and often spoken in generalities when he describes his own vision.

He criticizes the financial reform legislation meant to crack down on risky Wall Street practices that lead to the economic downturn, for example, saying it has “scared the dickens out of the financial sector and caused banks to pull back from lending.’’ But when asked whether he would try to repeal it, he did not provide a direct answer.

“I’ll look at what they’ve done in Dodd-Frank,’’ he told reporters last week at a farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after he hopped atop bales of hay to address Republican voters. “There’s some portions which may be appropriate, but the key to every regulation is to make sure that they are as streamlined and modern as it can be and you get rid of the excess that makes it difficult for enterprises to grow.’’

Romney also assails Democrats for not having a clear plan to overhaul Medicare, but he has yet to outline one of his own. He has brushed off questions about whether he supports the House GOP plan to transform Medicare into a partially private system.

“I will be happy to describe my specific plan, but clearly at this stage that’s still a little premature,’’ he told reporters two weeks ago in Irmo, S.C., after meeting with small business owners at a barbecue he hosted. “I can assure you, before my first debate with the president, I will lay out what my plan is for reforming Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.’’

In a speech in Las Vegas devoted to foreign policy two months ago, he did not bring up the conflict raging in Libya or the prodemocracy movements in other Middle Eastern countries. Afterward, reporters chased him down a hallway seeking answers, but got none.

“I’ve got a lot of positions on a lot of topics,’’ he said at the time. “But walking down the hall probably isn’t the best place to describe all those.’’

After today, he will have the platform to begin articulating them.

Matt Viser can be reached at