Eyeing a fellow front-runner with a Texas-size jobs record, Mitt Romney is stressing his own job-creation record in the private sector, a move that comes as Gov. Rick Perry enters the field and the Republican primary race becomes a more sharply defined contest.

Touring a small tube factory in this town just outside Manchester, Romney said that his combination of experience as governor of Massachusetts and as the head of a business separates him from rest of the pack, an argument he first made in the Iowa debate and will continue to press.

“I think my jobs record spans not just four years as governor, but the 25 years that I’ve lived in the private sector. I think understanding how the economy works by having worked in the real economy is finally essential for the White House, and I hope people recognize that,” Romney said after speaking with workers at the New England Small Tube Corp., a small business with 65 employees. “I respect the other people in this race, but I think the only other person that has that kind of extensive private-sector experience, besides me, in the Republican race is Herman Cain. And I respect Herman Cain, but I also think it’s helpful to have had that government experience that I’ve had.”

Perry bounded into the race on Saturday in South Carolina and has quickly become a serious challenger to Romney with his strong record othe lf job creation — nearly 40 percent of the jobs created in the past two years were in Texas.

Yet Romney, who co-founded the investment firm Bain Capital in 1984, is betting that primary and general-election voters will prefer a businessman to a lifelong politician — Perry is the Lone Star State’s longest-serving governor. Before that, he was a state legislator, agriculture commissioner and lieutenant governor.

“Understanding day to day what it takes to build a business, have a business grow and succeed, why businesses fail, I’ve been on both sides of that,” he said. “Not everything I’ve invested in or worked in has been successful, but I’ve learned how the economy works, and I believe that skill is what the nation is looking for.”

Scattered throughout past presidential races are examples of businessmen who became candidates, including Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, self-funders who ran as outside-the-Beltway figures. Romney ran in 2008 on his private-sector record.

He is now arguing that the time of the CEO candidate has finally arrived.

Romney earned his vast wealth of more than $250 million as chief executive of Bain, where he spent 15 years. The firm, which invests in start-ups and more established companies, experienced layoffs under Romney even as profits grew, a point that Democrats are sure to highlight as they try to link Romney with corporate avarice.

Already, the Democratic National Committee has seized on Romney’s “corporations are people” comment in Iowa last week to reinforce an image of the GOP front-runner as an out-of-touch businessman.

On Monday, as Obama kicked off a bus tour of the Midwest, Romney noted the president’s record low approval ratings, saying that the numbers have fallen “not because he’s not campaigning, it’s because he’s not leading.”

“The president has set about a bus tour today, going to swing states, and frankly the American people would rather see him in Washington working on getting this economy going again,” he said. “He seems to be more intent on trying to save his job than on trying to create jobs for the American people.”

Republicans have seized on what they say is a leadership deficit and have stepped up their comparisons of Obama to President Jimmy Carter, the last incumbent Democrat to lose the White House.

“This president has lost more jobs than Jimmy Carter did in his full four years — the number of people unemployed is more than during the Carter years,” Romney said. “I’ve joked in the past that in some respects, the Jimmy Carter years were the good old days — they certainly weren’t for those that endured them, but things are even worse now.”

Romney, in a later appearance at the Common Man Inn in Plymouth, said that Obama should call Congress back in session, a statement that echoes a similar call from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Romney said that in spite of the major developments in the race — Perry’s entry, Tim Pawlenty’s early exit and Bachmann’s strong win in the Iowa straw poll over the weekend — his strategy on the stump will not change.

“I’m not going to vary my speech and my vision to the American people based upon the political winds of the day, but instead based on the experience I’ve had throughout my life,” Romney said. “I don’t really measure the success of my campaign based on what other people are doing. But based on what I’m telling folks, it’s connecting and it is seen by the American people as what America needs.”

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