Mitt Romney, center, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, left, talk with students… (Jay LaPrete, Getty Images )
WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Europe has long been a pejorative in Mitt Romney's lexicon, a laugh line popular with conservative crowds as he has campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination.
So it came as no surprise when he told an Ohio audience Friday that massive government borrowing and spending under President Obama was putting America "on track to becoming Greece."
Describing Obama's "government-dominated society" as a breach of America's tradition of letting free enterprise thrive, Romney said, "In my view, that takes us down a path to becoming more and more like Europe. And Europe doesn't work in Europe."
Romney skirted any mention of Britain and other European nations recently sliding back into recession after they pursued the sort of austerity agenda that he proposes for the United States.
The remarks were only one demonstration of Romney's sometimes selective rhetoric clashing with facts as he adjusts his pitch for the general election.
Speaking at Otterbein University here in this suburb of Columbus, the former Massachusetts governor criticized the $787-billion stimulus package that Obama signed into law three years ago. Romney said it did too much to protect government jobs, "which is probably the sector that should have been shrinking."
But for more than two years, the number of private-sector jobs in the U.S. has been steadily rising, while public-sector employment has been dropping, because of state and local government layoffs.
The rise in private-sector jobs earlier led to an awkward moment for Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who highlighted the recent upswing in employment by telling a group of Otterbein students that there were 80,000 job openings listed on a state website.
"Tell your friends," Kasich told the seven students who joined him and Romney at a round-table meeting.
After waxing further about Ohio's positive jobs picture, Kasich added, "That's why I'm for Mitt Romney for president, because while we're doing much better in Ohio now, the problem is we still have obstacles in our way, and this is a man who has a proven record of creating jobs."
Romney's history as a corporate takeover executive proved to be a mixed blessing in the primaries as opponents highlighted the thousands of layoffs spurred by deals that yielded millions of dollars for him and his investment partners. Democrats are poised to repeat the criticisms in the fall.
On Friday, Romney highlighted the jobs gained by the deals he made as chief executive of Bain Capital, describing himself as a "turn-around" specialist. He took credit for an investment in Staples that he said ultimately produced 90,000 jobs at the office-supply chain. His plan for a sharply scaled-back government, he said, would improve the climate for "job creators."
Responding to the Obama campaign's accusations that he would fund tax cuts for millionaires by denying education and healthcare to the middle class, Romney said he would unite Americans rather than divide them.
"I'll not point at one or another of [the] American people and say, 'Well, these Wall Street people are bad,'" he said. "All the roads in America are connected. You can't attack parts of America and assume America will rise and become strong. I won't attack this executive, or that successful person."
Romney's immediate goal Friday was to counter Obama's assault on him and other Republicans this week over the cost of student loans. The event at Otterbein followed Obama's visits this week to colleges in three other battleground states — Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina.
Romney sidestepped the student-loan issue that Obama had used as the centerpiece of his campus events: the scheduled July 1 doubling of the 3.4% interest rate on federal Stafford loans to undergraduates. In a move to rebuild support among young voters, a pillar of his 2008 campaign, Obama has called on Republicans to join him in canceling the rate hike.
Romney recently agreed to support a measure to stop the increase, which caused him new grief with conservatives. A Wall Street Journal editorial on Friday called Romney's move a "pander to the youth vote."
"This must be the 'Etch-a-Sketch' version of Mitt that his campaign promised," the editorial said, alluding to Romney's expected pivot to the center after months of appeals to conservatives.
In his speech at Otterbein, Romney said it was time "to get serious about not passing on massive debts to you guys — to your generation."
"This is not something that you spend a lot of time thinking about," Romney said, with nearly four dozen students on stage as his backdrop. "You look at your student loans. But you should also have, in addition to your student loans, an understanding of the federal loans you've got, that you're going to inherit."
Romney hammered Obama and Democrats in Congress for spending that he said would saddle young Americans with too much debt.
"My generation will never pay it back," Romney said. "We'll be dead and gone. That interest and that principal gets paid by you guys. And for year after year after year, your income taxes are going to include a very substantial amount to pay the interest on the debt we're accumulating now."