ORLANDO — Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney offered a tough review Wednesday of President Obama’s State of the Union speech, accusing him of being “detached” from the realities of a still lagging economy.
“The detachment between reality and what he says is so extraordinary, I was just shaking my head at the TV last night,” Romney told about 150 supporters gathered on the concrete floor of a metal fabrication factory here as he campaigned ahead of Florida’s Jan. 31 GOP primary.
“This is a president who talks about deregulation, even as he regulates. Who talks about lowering taxes, even as he raises them. Who talks about expanding energy resources, even as he tries to shut them down,” Romney said.
The candidate for the Republican presidential nomination used the word “detached” repeatedly to describe the president’s attitude, picking up on a critique of Obama that he sometimes can appear aloof.
Romney, whose personal wealth has been on display this week after he released his tax records, did not address a central argument of Obama’s address — that economic fairness demands that wealthier Americans pay more to help stabilize the economy and reduce the debt. Instead, he argued that Obama’s policies are not doing enough to reverse the squeeze on the middle class.
“If you really think things are going well in this country and we’re on the right track, that his policies are working, you ought to vote for him,” he said. “But I think, on that basis, if we ask the American people if they think things are going well or not so well ... he’s not going to be president very long.”
One of Romney’s rivals for the nomination, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, tried to turn Obama’s theme to his own advantage as he campaigned in Florida.
Santorum, speaking to a crowd of about 250 people at First Baptist Church in Naples said that he was “very excited about the President’s speech last night.” His comment drew laughs from the conservative Christian crowd, leading Santorum to say that he “actually was” glad to hear Obama’s message, because it dovetails with his own.
“The president of the United States made the case for Rick Santorum for being the nominee of the Republican party,” he said as the audience applauded. “What did the president lead with? ... What was the first voter group he went after, the one he spent the most time on, the one he was going to do the most to try to help? Manufacturing, blue collar workers.
“Who’s been running their campaign for president here on the Republican side of the aisle, saying we need to focus on upward mobility? We need to focus on small town and blue collar America to create the ladder of success through manufacturing jobs to be able to rise is society again,” Santorum said. A few audience members shouted “Santorum!” and “Rick!”
Romney’s and Santorum’s responses to Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night were among an array of reactions from conservative critics, whose divergent responses mirrored the fractures on display this year in a bruising Republican presidential primary campaign.
The criticism began even before the speech, when Romney delivered an address billed as a “prebuttal” from a shuttered factory in Florida. It was followed late Tuesday by an official response from the GOP by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who disappointed many Republican establishment figures last year when he announced that he would not join the presidential race.
Finally, Herman Cain — the former pizza company chief executive who dropped out of the presidential race last year amid sexual harassment allegations — gave a populist-tinged tea party response in a late-night Web broadcast.
Daniels’s was the only response to air on the major networks at the conclusion of Obama’s remarks. The honor is typically given to a rising star in the opposing party who may benefit from the national exposure.
In his rebuttal, which was stern but without the bombastic tone adopted by some of his fellow Republicans of late, Daniels congratulated Obama for a handful of successes but accused him of painting an overly optimistic portrait of the nation’s economic health.
“On these evenings, presidents naturally seek to find the sunny side of our national condition,” Daniels said. “But when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true.”
But he sharply criticized the president’s “constant disparagement of people in business” and accused him of giving in to “extremists” on developing locally based sources of energy. He faulted what he called inaction to address entitlement programs that without changes are likely to “implode.” He accused the Obama administration of pitting the rich against the poor.
“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others,” he said. “As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat.”
In an acknowledgment of the divisions among Republicans, Daniels urged party members to “work, in ways we Republicans have not always practiced, to bring Americans together.”
Earlier in the day, Romney, who has struggled to prove to voters that he has the grit to take on Obama, offered a preview of the kind of criticism he would heap on the president if he wins the GOP nomination. He accused Obama of squandering his time in the White House and blaming Congress for his own shortcomings.
“Tonight, President Obama will make the opening argument in his campaign against a do-nothing Congress,” Romney said. “But we shouldn’t forget that for two years, this president had a Congress that could do everything he wanted.”
Closing out the day, Cain offered a critique that carried similar themes but was delivered in the kind of folksy language laced with populist rhetoric that briefly earned him a place at the top of the presidential contest in the fall. He accused Obama of “racial innuendos” and “class warfare,” and likened Obama’s leadership to that of King George III, who ruled England at the time of the American Revolution.
“We know that this nation is broke,” Cain said. “Not almost broke, it is broke and Washington is broken.”
Cain dropped out of the Republican presidential race in November amid media reports that several women had accused him of sexual harassment while he was a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association. He denied the allegations.
He has remained in the public eye, making guest appearances on Fox News programs and speaking at a rally promoted by comedian Stephen Colbert in South Carolina this month.
In his remarks Tuesday, Cain struck a theme voiced by Obama and his Republican critics alike — the need for greater cohesion. “We deserve as a nation,” Cain said, “to put the word ‘united’ back into the United States of America.”
Staff writer Nia-Malika Henderson also contributed to this story.