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Posted at 06:00 PM ET, 01/01/2012

Mitt Romney: Santorum has spent his career in government

ATLANTIC, Iowa – Mitt Romney drew a fresh contrast with his surging rival in the Republican presidential race here Sunday, saying that Rick Santorum has spent his career in government and suggesting that the former Pennsylvania senator lacks the private sector skills necessary to turn around the nation’s economy.


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, listens as his wife Ann speaks during a campaign appearance at the Family Table restaurant Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Atlantic, Iowa. (Chris Carlson - AP)

Responding to questions from reporters, Romney did not attack Santorum outright, but twice drew clear contrasts between their adult life experiences. Romney tried to group Santorum with former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an opponent Romney has relentlessly dismissed as a career politician.

“Like Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum has spent his career in government, in Washington,” Romney said. “Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a very different background than I have. And I think that the people of this country recognize that with our economy as the major issue we face right now, that it would be helpful to have someone who understands the economy first hand, who spent the bulk of his career working in the private sector.”

Santorum is a lawyer who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 and to the Senate in 1994. Romney, a businessman, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, and won election as governor in 2002.

Romney said he and Santorum are “friends,” adding that “I think a good deal of him.” Romney noted, with a smile, that Santorum endorsed him in 2008 during his first presidential run.

“Senator Santorum’s a good guy,” Romney said. “He’s worked hard [and] I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him do well on Tuesday night.”

Romney also tried to beat back questions that have been raised by some Iowa voters and rival campaigns here about his conservatism. He pointed to his record as governor of Massachusetts, balancing the budget and enforcing immigration laws, as examples of “good, solid conservative principles.”

Asked whether he believed Santorum was more conservative, Romney said: “I’ll let people make their own assessment of our respective records. But I’m a conservative. I’m proud to be a conservative businessman and what distinguishes me I think from others in the field is that I understand the economy first hand having lived in it.”

Romney also defended himself against accusations that he has not logged enough days on the ground in Iowa wooing social conservative leaders. He said he “built a lot of friendships and associations [in the 2008 race] and a lot of those people continue to support me.”

“I’ve been able to rekindle those friendships over the past several days and over the past several months as I’ve been back to Iowa,” Romney said.

As he has for weeks, Romney stressed the importance of his organizational strength beyond Iowa, suggesting that he alone is capable of going the distance to become the Republican nominee.

“This is a process that begins here, gets a big boost here, but goes on across the nation and it’s been important to me to make sure that I have a team and a capability to go the full distance, to get the nomination and to have the people in Iowa who caucused for me proud that they were on that team from the very beginning,” Romney said.

Romney showed up Sunday afternoon to greet voters at the Family Table Restaurant, a diner in this rural western Iowa town. But he and his campaign aides said they were surprised to find nearly 100 journalists mobbing the restaurant.

“Goodness gracious,” Romney exclaimed as he and his wife, Ann, stood on top of a wooden box behind the diner counter to begin brief remarks. As his senior advisers ate cinnamon rolls in the kitchen, Romney noted that some Iowans were being “crushed by camera people.”

Romney did not talk about any of his Republican opponents in his speech, instead keeping his criticism aimed solely at President Obama.

“He’s trying to find someone to blame,” Romney said. “I understand that their mantra these days is that there’s a do-nothing Congress and this is all the Congress’ fault. I think he’s forgetting that he had a Democrat Congress the first two years that put in place his economic plans. He borrowed $787 billion and told us that if we let him borrow that money that he’d keep unemployment below 8 percent. It has not been below 8 percent since. He has failed.”

“These last three years,” Romney added, “are not our destiny. They’re a detour.”

By  |  06:00 PM ET, 01/01/2012

 
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