In Iowa on Tuesday, Mitt Romney delivered an impressive speech on his theme of the week: the debt. Rather than making this only about dollars and cents, he turned the issue into one about values and President Obama’s deficient leadership.

Romney first laid out his case, explaining (in one of his more poetic phrases of the campaign) that a “prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation and every day we fail to act that fire gets closer to the homes and children we love.” He continued:

“The people of Iowa and America have watched President Obama for nearly four years, much of that time with Congress controlled by his own party. And rather than put out the spending fire, he has fed the fire. He has spent more and borrowed more.

“The time has come for a president, a leader, who will lead. I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno. We will stop borrowing unfathomable sums of money we can’t even imagine, from foreign countries we’ll never even visit. I will bring us together to put out the fire!

“A lot of people think this is a problem we can’t solve. I reject that kind of “can’t do” defeatist talk. It’s wrong.

“What’s happened here isn’t complicated. Washington has been spending too much money and our new President made things much worse. His policies have taken us backwards.

“Almost a generation ago, Bill Clinton announced that the Era of Big Government was over. . . .

“President Obama is an old school liberal whose first instinct is to see free enterprise as the villain and government as the hero. America counted on President Obama to rescue the economy, tame the deficit and help create jobs. Instead, he bailed out the public-sector, gave billions of dollars to the companies of his friends, and added almost as much debt as all the prior presidents combined.”

Romney then tied the debt to our “tepid” recovery and a host of other problems including long-term unemployment.

He cast Obama as a backward-looking liberal bereft of ideas. (“My point is this: as President Obama and old-school liberals absorb more and more of our economy into government, they make what we do more expensive, less efficient and less useful. They make America less competitive. They make government more expensive. What President Obama is doing is not bold; it’s old.”) He sounds not unlike Bill Clinton (to whom he compared Obama unfavorably) in 1992, pointing out how behind the times was President George H.W. Bush.

Romney then added in a level of granularity that has been missing from many of his speeches, noting his entitlement reform plans and providing vivid examples of government duplication that he’d eliminate (“94 federal programs in 11 agencies that encourage ‘green’ building” and “$600 billion on more than 100 different programs that aim to help the poor”).

But while he assumed the role of a tough CEO who is going to streamline, cut and reorganize government like one of his Bain businesses, he never strayed far from a message rooted in values. He warmed up with this paean to middle America:

“Iowa is a collection of the values that built America and that have sustained us through good times and bad. You know them well: hard work, taking care of our neighbors, family, faith in God and country. Common sense, kitchen table values. Not fancy, but enduring. These aren’t the values that lead to out-of-control spending sprees, or to piling up massive amounts of debt you know your children — and grandchildren — will have to work all their lives to pay off. These aren’t the values of putting off difficult decisions with the hope that maybe someone else will solve them.

And he later reminded the audience, “This is not just bad economics; it is immoral.”

Romney’s speeches tend to adhere to a pattern: Define the problem. Hold Obama accountable for it (or for making it worse). Contrast his own vision/solution with Obama’s. And tie the issue and its solution to a set of values (don’t steal from the next generation, promote unity and not class warfare, etc.) It is methodical and logical, but so long he and his speech writers add some rhetorical flourishes and specific examples he avoids sounding like a broken record.

This formulation also follows the Tea Party lead in defining economic issues in moral terms (instant vs. delayed gratification, living within your means vs. profligacy). Romney leaves Obama to pander on discrete and divisive social issues while he, still appealing to social conservatives, weaves his discussion of values into a message that can sell to a broader segment of the electorate. If he can keep this up, he’ll be a formidable candidate.