Mitt Romney donned safety glasses and toured a rock-crushing-equipment factory here on Wednesday, saying President Obama’s economic policies have choked the manufacturer and thousands of other businesses across America.

Companies like Screen Machine Industries are at the center of the political fight over the government’s role in the private sector, an issue that is a key part of the debt-ceiling stalemate in Washington and that could define the 2012 presidential campaign.

Romney, the early front-runner for the Republican nomination, and the factory’s owner see government as the problem — stunting growth at every turn with stringent environmental and labor regulations, a new health-care law, and trade policies that they say disadvantage U.S. companies.

Yet it’s been the government — and Obama’s policies in particular — that has helped propel Screen Machine’s growth at its sprawling new headquarters here, even during the recession. The company, which builds heavy-duty crushing and screening machines used in construction, mining and recycling, received four stimulus awards totaling $218,607. It is also benefiting from a 10-year deal with local and state governments to not pay taxes on its property, equipment or inventory, according to public records.

And Screen Machine, which is expanding its global sales, recently won a federal contract to deliver its machines to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. That base doubled in size to accommodate Obama’s troop surge.

This family-owned factory, which employs between 50 and 100 nonunion workers in the Columbus suburbs, and others like it are at the heart of a tug of war between the two political parties as each tries to show that its policies would help American manufacturers and small businesses. But the stories of factories like Screen Machine’s are not black and white, making their use as campaign backdrops fraught with peril.

In the debt debate, when Republicans talk about protecting small-business job creators, they’re talking about people like Steve Cohen. His family founded Screen Machine in 1966 and has expanded the company overseas to Russia, China, the Middle East and Africa. This week, Cohen said, the company received its first orders from Australia.

A call to end ‘uncertainty’

Romney, after climbing a stage on the steamy factory floor to the strains of Ohio State University’s football song “Hang on Sloopy,” hailed Screen Machine as an “extraordinary manufacturing facility.” In a 20-minute speech to more than 200 factory workers, supporters and community leaders, Romney attacked Obama for his stewardship of the “extraordinarily uneven” economic recovery.

Repeating many of the lines he has practiced on the stump, Romney criticized the president’s health-care law, his financial regulations and his environmental policies as creating an atmosphere of uncertainty that is stifling growth at Screen Machine and other companies.

“Uncertainty is the enemy of investment and growth,” he said. “What are the friends of investment and growth?”

Romney highlighted his seven-point list of free-enterprise principles — such as lowering tax rates and loosening regulations — that he says can turn around the sputtering economy. Then he turned to trade policy, saying Chinese companies have been copying Screen Machine’s patented designs and selling counterfeit products. He accused Obama of not enforcing trade policies that protect U.S. companies.

“For too long, we’ve let China cheat,” Romney said. “The president, when he was a candidate, said he was going to ‘take China to the mat.’ I’m afraid most of us thought he meant the wrestling mat. But instead he and we have been taken to the doormat.”

Although Romney’s message focused on trade, Cohen was sharply critical of other Obama policies.

“Every single policy that occurs in the United States that does not occur elsewhere is a disadvantage to our company — whether it’s Obamacare or regulations or taxes,” Cohen told reporters.

Democrats on Wednesday pounced on Romney, saying his visit to Screen Machine smacks of “hypocrisy” because the company benefited from Obama’s policies.

“We will see Mitt Romney use an Ohio manufacturing facility that has benefited from President Obama’s efforts as a backdrop to rail against President Obama’s record on manufacturing,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern told reporters a few hours before Romney’s appearance.

Bill Burton, a former Obama spokesman who now runs Priorities USA, a pro-Obama political action committee, said the visit to Screen Machine is “no surprise” for a “compulsive flip-flopper like Mitt Romney.”

The partisan warfare was an early sign of what might come, as Romney ventured into a swing congressional district — Obama won here in 2008, but President George W. Bush carried it in 2004 — in one of the nation’s hardest-fought swing states.

A deal to stay put

In 2004, Screen Machine was looking to build a new, expanded headquarters, and Cohen was considering relocating the company outside Ohio. Rob Klinger, then the economic development chief of Licking County, said Cohen told him: “We’re out of here. We’re going to West Virginia.”

Clarksburg, W.Va., had offered perks such as free land and subsidized worker training. That’s when Ohio — backed by 66 organizations, including federal, state and municipal agencies — made Cohen a better deal. They offered $310,000 in financing to help drill under Interstate 70 to build water and sewer lines for Cohen’s factory, and they offered a 10-year tax abatement.

“Everybody and their brother was looking to attract this company,” Klinger said in an interview.

It’s hardly unusual that governments would offer incentives to recruit or retain businesses — especially expanding manufacturers. “They built a brand-new building and doubled their size,” gushed John Carlisle, a trustee of neighboring Etna Township.

Dick Knapp, a former township trustee who helped persuade Cohen to stay in central Ohio, said he knows why Romney was attracted to the business.

“One thing I know about Steve Cohen is that he makes a made-in-the-USA product,” Knapp said in an interview. “It doesn’t get more American than this.”