What a contrast today. Rick Santorum was arguing about whether the Wall Street Journal edited out of his op-ed a reference to his 0 percent manufacturing tax (as he originally claimed) or whether he left it out. Mitt Romney’s spokeswoman Andrea Saul sarcastically tweeted: “As usual, the ‘facts’ don’t add up for @RickSantorum. What’s the real story on his WSJ op-ed?”

Meanwhile, Romney was giving a free-market economic speech in Chicago the day before the Illinois primary. He bashed President Obama for the foolhardy Keynesian stimulus spending. (“For three years, President Obama has expanded government instead of empowering the American people. He’s put us deeper in debt. He’s slowed the recovery and harmed our economy. And he has attacked the cornerstone of American prosperity: our economic freedom.”) The bulk of his talk , however, centered on economic freedom and the contrast between his and the president’s vision:

Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers — and has long since surpassed them all.

Today, however, our status and our standing are in peril because the source of our economic strength is threatened. Over the last several decades, and particularly over the last three years, Washington has increasingly encroached upon our freedom. The Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid — why it couldn’t meet their projections, let alone our expectations. If we don’t change course now, this assault on freedom could damage our economy and the well-being of American families for decades to come.

He then listed the assaults on economic freedom, including increased taxes and regulation and crony capitalism (“When government rather than the market routinely selects the winners and losers, enterprises cannot predict their prospects, and free enterprise is replaced with crony capitalism”).

In contrast to Obama’s record, Romney described his own vision:

My agenda takes America in the right direction. It preserves freedom. It encourages risk and innovation. It fosters competition. It allows Americans to pursue happiness as they choose — and will lead to greater opportunity.

Instead of expanding the government, I will shrink it.

Instead of raising taxes, I will cut them.

Instead of adding more regulations, I will reduce them with an overriding concern: do they help or do they hurt jobs?

That’s just the beginning. There is still more we can do. Before we can create enduring prosperity, we must restore our economic freedom.

To build a strong America, we must empower Americans to pursue happiness as they choose, not as government directs.

We must restore the world’s most competitive economy, not relinquish it to cronies and bureaucrats.

We must elect a President who puts his faith in free people, in free enterprises – and in the founding principles that made this country the greatest nation in history.

This is the sort of optimistic, forward-looking message he will need to hammer home in the general election. Republicans will persuade voters to throw out Obama only if they understand where he is leading us (more debt, more taxes) and what the alternative is (limited government, tax and entitlement reform, pro-growth policies). It is a conservative message that the right should embrace, but it also sidesteps the red-meat, incendiary rhetoric that turns off moderate voters.

A prominent Capitol Hill Republican today told me, “We [Republicans] have talked like conservatives and governed like moderates; we need to talk like moderates and govern like conservatives.” Or, put differently, Romney will need to talk about his agenda in a way that doesn’t scare off the center (repairing entitlements, adhering to a budget like families do, etc.) while giving conservatives something to cheer about.