APPLETON, Wis. – Seizing the mantle of the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney on Friday sought to frame the general election contest as a battle to restore America’s promise and said the sputtering economy is the legacy of “Barack Obama’s Government-Centered Society.”

(Steven Senne/AP)

In a formal speech here, the former Massachusetts governor delivered a passionate defense of America’s free enterprise system, which he said had been under attack by an administration that considered businesses as “the villain and not the solution.”

“In Barack Obama’s Government-Centered Society, the government must do more because the economy is doomed to do less,” Romney said. “When you attack business and vilify success, you will have less business and less success.”

Romney, stopping short of labeling Obama’s policies socialism, said: “President Obama is transforming America into something very different than the land of the free and the land of opportunity. And we know where that transformation leads. There are other nations that have chosen that path and it leads to chronic high unemployment, crushing debt and stagnant wages. Sound familiar?”

Romney’s 24-minute address here at Lawrence University amounted to a new version of his stump speech, which he and his aides reworked from the ground up. Romney sought to place his economic prescriptions of looser regulations and lower taxes under the broader banner of American freedom and renewal.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe that free enterprise is the solution to all of our problems,” he said, “but nor am I naïve enough to doubt that it is one of the greatest forces of good this world has ever known.”

Romney was introduced here by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the latest in a string of prominent Republican leaders to endorse him in recent days.

More than at any other moment in the campaign, Romney took on the air of the nominee. Romney, who often stumbles as he reads from teleprompters, delivered this speech crisply and with unusual passion. He wore a suit and stood before eight cedar-framed American and Wisconsin state flags.

And he had a larger-than-usual Secret Service detail. For the first time at a Romney event, guests had to walk through metal detectors to enter the auditorium.

Romney made no mention of his Republican opponents and, with one exception, spoke not of next Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary but of the November general election.

“This campaign will produce a deafening cacophony of charges and counter charges and by Nov. 6, most Americans will probably be afraid to turn on their T.V.,” he said. “So now, in this quiet before the storm, let’s start with some basic facts about which there can be no debate.”

Romney sharply condemned Obama’s record, saying, “All in all, President Obama prolonged the recession and slowed the recovery. President Obama’s economic strategy is a bust. These troubling facts are President’s Obama’s legacy and now our shared history.”

But he also tried to sound notes of optimism, seeming to offer his supporters the same kind of hope for change in Washington that Obama offered his followers in 2008.

“There was a time – not so long ago – when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans,” Romney said. “ That meant something different to each of us but it meant something special to all of us. We knew it without question. And so did the world. Those days are coming back. That’s our destiny. Join me.”

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