STRATHAM, N.H. — Mitt Romney, declaring "Barack Obama has failed America," announced his candidacy for president Thursday by painting himself as a staunch conservative deeply committed to creating private-sector jobs and slashing the size of government.
"I'm going to insist that Washington respect the Constitution," the putative front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination said, adding that he would "return responsibility and authority to the states for dozens of government programs — and that begins with a complete repeal of Obamacare."
In just those sentences, Romney hit the notes that the party's influential right wing loves to hear. Not only did Romney offer a sharp contrast with Obama, but he spoke the language of groups like the conservative Granite State Patriots, who repeatedly bring up a need to return to what they see as the Constitution's call for state's rights and a more limited federal government.
Nothing angers them more than the 2010 federal health care law, which requires nearly everyone to get coverage by 2014 _ and individual mandate being challenged by 26 states in federal court — and that's where Romney could run into big trouble.
Widely regarded as a moderate-to-conservative governor of Massachusetts when he led the state from 2003 to 2007, Romney signed into law a plan that's considered the model for the federal measure. And when running for president in 2008, he said, "I like mandates. The mandates work."
This year, and again Thursday, he explained that states are in the best position to judge what's best for their residents — and that while his law fit Massachusetts, other states should do what's best for them.
Romney, 64, desperately needs to win this state's primary, traditionally the nation's first. He has a home in Wolfeboro, is far ahead in state polls, is well-known to voters in the state's populous southern tier and has a strong political and fundraising organization.
His appeal lies less with the hardcore right than with the GOP's mainstream economic conservatives who have long dominated the state party, a group less doctrinaire than the tea party crowd.
"This election is really about the economy. There are other issues out there, sure, but the best chance for Romney to win the White House is to stress the economic theme," said Tom Rath, a veteran Republican activist and Romney strategist.
Romney made a pitch Thursday to the economic conservatives, stressing his credentials as a businessman. The son of a former Michigan governor and auto company executive, he helped found Bain Capital, a private equity firm, in 1984. And he led the successful effort to rescue the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from financial ruin.
A Romney administration, he pledged, would stress free markets, not government pump-priming, and restore America as a place where "hard work and innovation" are prized.
Romney recalled how, in 2008, the country "gave someone new a chance to lead; someone we hadn't known for very long, who didn't have much of a record, but promised to lead us to a better place.
"At the time," Romney said, "we didn't know what kind of president he would make. It was a moment of crisis for our economy, and when Barack Obama came to office, we wished him well and hoped for the best."
But April's unemployment rate was 9 percent, the economy is growing at a sluggish pace, and so it's clear, Romney said, that "Barack Obama has failed America." The crowd cheered.
Obama, he said, takes his economic inspiration from Europe. "With the economy in crisis, his answer is to borrow money we can't afford and throw it at Washington bureaucrats and politicians. Just like Europe," Romney charged.
"This president's first answer to every problem is to take power from you, your local government and your state so so-called experts in Washington can make decisions for you," Romney said. "And with each of those decisions, we lose more of our freedom."
He promised to cap federal spending at 20 percent or less of the economy _ it now averages around 24 percent _ and balance the budget, which is expected to run $7 trillion in the red over the next 10 years. He offered no specifics.
Romney, in an open-collar white shirt, his wife Ann by his side, spoke at the farm of longtime Republican activists Doug and Stella Scamman.
He was surrounded by bales of hay and made his announcement in front of a late 18th century barn before an enthusiastic crowd of about 400 people. "This is what New Hampshire's all about, a day like this, a farm like this," he said.
But in nearby cities, Republicans were more circumspect about his candidacy.
"Romney went around the state trying to buy as many politicians as he could," said State Rep. Marshall Quandt of Exeter. "He just seems slippery, and he acts too much like a politician."
Rath said he's unconcerned about such criticism — "voters can make their own judgment. We need to stay on the economic message," he said.
But it all could come down to health care. State Rep. Michael McCarthy of Nashua was "100 percent" for Romney last time; today, he's still looking.
"He does have some problem with health care," McCarthy said.
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