WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney on Friday told a convention of staunch conservatives — the skeptics he badly needs to win the Republican presidential nomination — how, as president, he'd push deep domestic spending cuts.
President Barack Obama's re-election campaign quickly fought back, trying to tar Romney as insensitive and misguided.
Romney pitched his 25-minute address right to the hearts of the 1,200 people at the Washington Convention Center who'd gathered for Americans for Prosperity's "Defending the American Dream Summit."
"There are some who argue that fiscal responsibility is heartless and immoral," Romney said. "No, what is heartless is to imperil our children. And what is immoral is to imperil the strength of the nation that was founded under God and preserved by his hand."
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Obama's campaign countered with a "memo to interested parties." It argued that "Romney will not ask everyone to contribute their fair share. As a result, his plan requires deep spending cuts across government, everywhere outside of defense spending."
The federal budget deficit in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30, was $1.3 trillion, about the same as the previous year. The deficit was equal to 8.6 percent of the gross domestic product, the measure of the nation's economy, an unusually high percentage.
Romney's remedies are a list of ideas similar to those proposed by other conservative Republicans, and similar in many ways to what the grass-roots tea party movement has been urging.
Romney, who governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 as a center-right executive, has been trying hard to woo the right.
"I'm very nervous how the conservative base will react if he's the nominee," said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican, an influential newsletter in the nation's first caucus state.
Of particular concern is Romney's championing, while governor, a near-universal state health care law that's regarded as a model for the 2010 federal health care law, which most Republicans despise.
Romney, though, told the Washington crowd Friday, "I will repeal Obama care," and got a standing ovation.
He also promised to lower federal spending to 20 percent of the economy; it's now around 24 percent. That would require significant cuts.
"I'm going to make the federal government simpler, smaller and smarter," he said.
"I pledge to reduce spending to 20 percent of GDP by the end of my first term" as president, he said, as the 1,200 people in the audience applauded, "and then I'll cap it at that level."
The Obama campaign memo argued that "The inevitable result of Romney's arbitrary limits on federal spending would be deep cuts to education, infrastructure, innovation and clean energy, devastating efforts to invest in the future of our country even as other nations around the world are racing to make these investments in economic competitiveness.
Among Romney's ideas: deep cuts in the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corp.; the elimination of family planning programs "benefiting abortion groups like Planned Parenthood"; and an end to foreign aid to "countries that oppose America's interests."
He also would "return federal programs to the states, where innovation, cost management and reduction of fraud and abuse can far exceed what Washington achieves."
"I like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but I refuse to borrow almost $1 billion a year from China to pay for them," Romney said.
While he rules out any tax increases, he's somewhat less specific about his plans for Social Security and Medicare.
"There will be no change for retirees or those near retirement. No change," Romney said. "For the next generation of retirees, we should slowly raise the retirement age. And, finally, for the next generation of retirees, we should slow the growth in benefits for those with higher incomes."
Budget experts long have said that any serious effort to pare federal budget deficits must include dramatic changes to some entitlement programs, as well as more sources of revenue.
"Both sides, those who are against any fundamental health entitlement reform and those who oppose any revenue increases, will be equally complicit in bringing the nation closer to the fiscal brink," said former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
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