By JULIE PACE and PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took a potshot at California's bedraggled economy, comparing it to the crisis in Greece, as he warned voters on Wednesday that Barack Obama is leading the nation down a similar path of huge debt.
"Entrepreneurs and business people around the world and here at home think that at some point America is going to become like Greece or like Spain or Italy, or like California — just kidding about that one, in some ways," he added, to laughter from his audience in Iowa.
The remark seemed likely to bruise egos in a state wrestling with the prospect of tax increases and painful budget cuts. But Romney may have little to lose there — polls show Obama with a comfortable lead in California, where Democrats control the governorship and the Statehouse.
A spokesman for California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, disputed Romney's assessment. Gil Duran said the state's credit rating has improved under Brown and that borrowing costs, a major issue facing Italy and other financially struggling European nations, have dropped by hundreds of millions of dollars.
"This is just a paper-thin Republican talking point that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny" Duran said. "He should get some better speechwriters who actually know what they're talking about."
Romney is focused on Iowa's six electoral votes in a state race that both parties think could be close. He told Iowans that Americans have to show investors worldwide they are serious about reining in the nation's spending and debt.
"If they think we are going to get to a point of massive deficits and the potential for economic challenge, why, they're going to have a tough time investing in America," he said.
As Romney and his Republican allies denounced Obama as too far left to be re-elected, they held up an unlikely presidential role model — Democrat Bill Clinton.
Obama is "the anti-Clinton," declared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, bolstering a line of attack taken up by Romney in speeches and a TV ad as part of a hard sell to working-class voters.
Obama also was pitching to those voters Wednesday, and reaching out to women, whose support is essential to his prospects in November. The president was bound for Colorado to promote wind energy and appear with college student Sandra Fluke, whose congressional testimony became a flashpoint for arguments over contraception, abortion and women's health care.
At a morning rally in Iowa, Romney repeated his charge that Obama is stripping work requirements from welfare and instituting changes to "make America more of a nation of government dependency."
Obama's campaign says Romney is misrepresenting a change that simply gives more freedom to states that requested it to help deal with paperwork. But Gingrich, whose own bid for the GOP nomination was quashed by Romney, argued that the administration's willingness to weigh state requests for waivers amounts to a back-door maneuver to undermine the 1996 law signed by Clinton.
"Clinton was trying to move the party to the center," Gingrich told reporters, referring to the Democratic Party. "Obama is trying to move it to the left."
The former president himself weighed in. Clinton said in a statement Tuesday that the assertion in Romney's ad was "not true."
The effort to cleave Obama from a popular policy of Clinton's presidency comes just weeks before the former president is scheduled to appear as a crowd-rousing, marquee speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Gingrich — who pushed through the 1996 welfare bill and later led the charge to impeach Clinton — said he wanted to remind Americans "how much weaker and less effective a president Obama is than the man who is nominating him."
The welfare issue as pushed by the Romney campaign appeared to be aimed at blue-collar whites in a weak economy and suggested that Obama might be gaining ground politically with his position on taxes.