ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The first day of voting in the Republican presidential nominating contest is still seven months away, but Mitt Romney is trying to sound and act like the nominee.
On Thursday afternoon, as Air Force One touched down in Philadelphia to ferry President Obama to two fundraisers, Romney came to a shuttered steel plant about 70 miles north to assail the president’s stewardship of the nation’s distressed job market.
In 2009, Obama visited the Allentown Metal Works plant here, touting it as a symbol of the nation’s manufacturing might — an employer that would benefit from his $787 billion economic stimulus bill. But by this year, the plant had closed, laying off its workers and ending this city’s century of manufacturing history.
“Look around you: This is what he called the symbol of hope,” Romney said, staging a news conference in front of the factory’s locked fence. “There are weeds, boarded-up windows. . . . This was the spot he picked to symbolize the success of the stimulus. And my eyes tell me it ain’t working.”
The former Massachusetts governor repeatedly called Obama a “failure,” stressing his own 25-year background of working in the private sector and saying of the president: “He’s out of his depth when it comes to getting the economy going. It’s just not something that he understands.”
This is the latest turn in Romney’s strategy to concentrate his campaign on the economy and take his fight past his Republican rivals and directly to the president.
It’s also the clearest sign of the strong start Romney has had. Even though he remains a relatively weak front-runner, he largely has been able to dictate the terms of the race, with his challengers unable or unwilling to throw him off his relentless economic messaging.
Romney has ignored the few shots his rivals have fired at him over his health-care overhaul in Massachusetts and his evolving position on abortion rights. Although Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) appears to be surging and has drawn some of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds of the season during her announcement tour this week, Romney leads most polls nationally and in the early voting states.
Romney, who held two fundraisers in Philadelphia on Thursday, is widely expected to trounce his opponents when they post quarterly fundraising reports in early July, with his advisers estimating that the campaign will have raised less than $20 million.
Romney sought to compare that not with his GOP counterparts but with Obama, who he estimated would raise $1 billion during the campaign. “We’re not gonna raise anywhere near that kind of money,” he told reporters.
Because of the strong name recognition he gained during his failed 2008 presidential bid, Romney has the luxury of skipping some of the retail politicking his competitors are doing in the early voting states.
“He’s credentialed, well-qualified on the economy. He should stick to that and do nothing else,” Republican strategist Ed Rogers, who has not backed a 2012 candidate, said in a recent interview. “He is the front-runner. He can afford to go slow. He doesn’t need to have a big bang at this stage, just keep building his organization and keep building his money base.”
When a reporter here suggested that Romney was purposefully avoiding the campaign fray, the candidate became defensive.
“I’m very much in the fray when it comes to dealing with the president and his economic policies, because they’re not working,” Romney said. “Obamanomics is not working.”
Although Romney has largely avoided engaging his Republican rivals, he is trying to demonstrate that he can go toe to toe with the president on the economy — the one issue his advisers think is not only Romney’s greatest strength, but also what will decide whether Obama wins a second term.
“This race is going to be about the economy — it’s going to be about jobs, it’s going to be about houses, it’s going to be about the devastation that’s occurred on Obama’s watch,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said in an interview this week. “It doesn’t matter who’s running. That’s what the race is about.”
He likened the 2012 campaign to the Hollywood thriller “Jaws.”
“There’s a moment you can forget it’s about the shark, but the shark is going to remind you,” Stevens said. “The shark isn’t going away. And there’s a big, big shark out there.”
Democrats didn’t let Romney’s remarks here go unchallenged. Former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell, in a conference call with reporters, called Romney’s visit a “cheap shot” and defended the stimulus package.
“It increased Pennsylvanians’ purchasing powers, it created jobs, it did a whole lot of terrific things,” Rendell said, noting that orders for steel, asphalt and concrete increased in the state while $11 billion in stimulus funding went into tax cuts for residents and businesses.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski (D) said in an interview that Obama’s policies did not lead to the factory’s closure. The plant reportedly had longtime financial troubles.
“I don’t think Mitt Romney should be criticizing our community and this economy, because he has no clue why this plant closed — and it had nothing to do with President Obama,” Pawlowski said.
Romney’s Allentown event is the third time in nine days that he has tried to trump Obama’s messaging.
When the president visited Lawrenceville, Pa., last Friday to talk about manufacturing, Romney gave an exclusive interview to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the day before.
The result: The newspaper ran a story the day of Obama’s visit, headlined, “Romney tags Obama on economy, job losses.”
This week, the day before Obama talked with factory workers in eastern Iowa, Romney offered one-on-one telephone interviews to the Des Moines Register and the Associated Press.
The result: The newspaper ran a front-page story on the day of his visit, headlined, “Romney: Obama created uncertainty for U.S. businesses.”
This time, with Obama coming to Philadelphia, Romney gave a day-before interview to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also released a 30-second Web video centered on the Allentown plant. The video begins with footage of Obama’s 2009 visit before cutting to a local news report about the plant’s closing.
The video ends abruptly with a slogan Romney plans to use again and again: “Obama Isn’t Working.”