As President Barack Obama took a break from the campaign trail, Romney delivered what his campaign billed as a major economic address in swing state Iowa on Friday to help win the dwindling number of voters yet to make up their minds. While the speech did not break new ground, it was designed to help crystalize the differences between his and Obama's economic approaches less than two weeks before Election Day.
"If Paul Ryan and I are elected as your president and vice president, we will endeavor with all our hearts and energy to restore America," Romney said. "Instead of more spending, more borrowing from China and higher taxes from Washington, we'll renew our faith in the power of free people pursuing their dreams."
Minutes before the speech, senior strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney would not call on Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock to remove TV ads featuring Romney's endorsement. Fehrnstrom said Romney disagrees with the Indiana Republican's recent comment about rape, but would not interfere with Mourdock's advertising.
"That's his decision," Fehrnstrom said when asked whether the campaign wants Mourdock to remove the ads. He added that Romney feels he has addressed the matter and doesn't plan to discuss it further.
Romney has not spoken about Mourdock's comments directly, despite repeated questions from reporters about it in recent days.
The candidate was focused on the economy as he addressed several hundred supporters on a cold autumn day outside a local construction company.
Romney argued that Obama has no proposals that can meet "the challenges of the times." He dismissed the president's signature legislative achievement, a health care law, as "his vaunted Obamacare" and said he would instead focus on saving Medicare and Social Security.
He repeated many of his standard campaign themes: that Obama is focusing on small issues like "characters on Sesame Street and silly word games" and that Romney will improve kitchen-table concerns like health care, job creation and school choice. His signature refrain is that America can't afford another four years like the last four years.
The speech came hours after the government reported a slight pickup in economic growth in the final such report before the Nov. 6 election.
The pickup to 2 percent from July to September from the 1.3 percent in the second quarter may help Obama's message that the economy is improving. Still, growth remains too weak to rapidly boost hiring. And the 1.74 percent rate for 2012 trails last year's 1.8 percent growth. Romney called the news "discouraging."
"Slow economic growth means slow job growth and declining take-home pay," Romney said in a statement. "This is what four years of President Obama's policies have produced."
The White House had a more positive take on the news in a blog post by Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. "While we have more work to do, together with other economic indicators, this report provides further evidence that the economy is moving in the right direction," he wrote. Obama got better news from a survey out of the University of Michigan showing consumer confidence rising to its highest level in five years.
An Associated Press-GfK poll out this week shows Romney overtaking Obama as the candidate that likely voters trust more to handle the economy. The poll found 51 percent of those voters surveyed Oct. 19-23 picking Romney, compared to 44 percent for Obama. The two candidates were tied among likely voters on that issue in the previous poll in mid-September.
Still, the two are locked in a dead heat in the nationwide poll. Other surveys show a tight race in the swing states that will decide the election, with the winning candidate needing 270 Electoral College votes. With Hurricane Sandy threatening the East Coast during the final full week of the campaign, Romney canceled a rally in Virginia scheduled for Sunday. Obama aides said they were watching the storm's path before deciding whether to call off any of his events.
Obama was pushing back on Romney's criticism on another front — relations with Israel, which could have an impact particularly with Jewish voters in swing state Florida. The Republican has repeatedly criticized Obama for not traveling to Israel as president. Obama visited as a candidate in 2008.
A new ad shows images of Obama's trip and video of his pledge during his final debate with Romney that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon while he's president and that "our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg responded that Obama's Middle East policy "has been a failure."
"As president, Mitt Romney's first overseas trip will be to Jerusalem, and under a Romney Administration, the world will never question America's solidarity with Israel," she said in a statement.
Romney was expanding his TV advertising into Minnesota, where President Richard Nixon was the last Republican to carry the state 40 years ago. The investment is described as a small buy that Democrats suggest is simply intended to generate media coverage and force the incumbent campaign to spend money there as well. And Obama's campaign followed suit, going up with what it described as a small buy meant to reach voters in neighboring Wisconsin.
Romney's running mate Paul Ryan also spent time in states not expected to affect the race's outcome, with fundraisers in South Carolina and Alabama. Ryan was scheduled to join Romney for a rally Friday evening in North Canton, Ohio, before the vice presidential candidate embarks on a two-day, 400-mile bus tour of the state.
At a midday luncheon in Huntsville, Ala., that raised more than $1 million for Romney's campaign, Ryan told donors they were helping pay for television ads in battleground states and staff to get voters to their polling locations. "Historically, Republicans have not been as good at that," Ryan said. "We're getting a lot better."
Vice President Joe Biden, campaigning Friday in Wisconsin, said Romney "meant what he said" when he was caught on tape saying that 47 percent of the nation considers themselves victims.
"Romney talks about victims. I don't know where the hell he lives," Biden told about 1,000 people at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. "I don't recognize the country he's talking about." The Obama campaign has a radio ad playing heavily in Wisconsin keying off of Romney's 47 percent line and using it to question the Republican's priorities. Both Romney and Ryan plan to campaign in Wisconsin early next week.
Obama arrived back in Washington late Thursday following a 40-hour battleground state blitz of eight states. He took a one-day break from the campaign trail Friday, spending much of the day at the White House, with a trip to Democratic Party headquarters to film a live appearance on MTV. Turning out young voters who tend to vote Democratic is a key strategy for the Obama campaign. He was scheduled to campaign in New Hampshire on Saturday.
The president also planned Oval Office interviews Friday with American Urban Radio Networks, which has a largely black audience, and Michael Smerconish, the conservative-leaning radio host who backed him in the 2008 election.
Obama also planned to talk to local television stations in swing states. And the campaign announced Friday that the president will travel next week to Colorado, Wisconsin and Ohio for a series of campaign rallies and events.