PATASKALA, Ohio — Forget his GOP primary opponents. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is focused on a match-up against President Barack Obama.
"The president when he was a candidate said that he was going to take China to the mat," the former Massachusetts governor said Wednesday at a manufacturing plant here. "Well, I'm afraid most of us thought he meant the wrestling mat. But instead he and we have been taken to the door mat."
Romney's take on Obama's economic record in a general election battleground shined a light on his strategy as he leads the Republican field in polls and money five months before primary voting is to begin: ignore swipes from his GOP rivals, criticize the Democratic president on the economy, and campaign in important presidential swing states seemingly as often as states that vote early in the GOP primary.
It's a sharp contrast to Romney's approach four years ago when he ran for the Republican nomination as a virtual unknown and tried to — unsuccessfully — beat the 2008 leader of the GOP pack John McCain.
This year, it's Romney who leads the Republican Party field, both in polling and in money, in a party that typically nominates the candidate who ran — and lost — once before. His standing has affording him the luxury of watching as GOP rivals like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty try to emerge as the alternative choice of primary voters.
Not that Romney will publically acknowledge that he's focused on November 2012 and Obama; doing so would enflame Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early voting states and create an aura of inevitability that has destroyed other front-runners before him, like Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary in 2008.
Perhaps mindful of all that, Romney said Wednesday — in a state that isn't slated to hold its GOP primary until early March — that: "I've got to win the primaries first. That's job one. Then comes job two, which is winning the general."
His strategy, to be sure, could change if new — and potentially more exciting — players join the race. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has scheduled a visit to Iowa in September, a hint she's more seriously weighing a campaign. And advisers to Texas Gov. Rick Perry are laying the groundwork should he decide to become a presidential contender.
For now, at least, Romney's acting like the front-runner.
Four years ago, Romney weighed in on every issue every day. Today, he picks his moments and speaks on topics that he deems most important. The former business executive has offered his opinions only when they suit his main argument for a Romney White House: that the nation needs a president who is a master of the economy.
When Romney has something to say in this campaign, look for it on Facebook or Twitter, or on a newspaper's editorial page. Extensive media interviews and long question-and-answer sessions with reporters aren't his style this time as his team works to keep a Romney, who was woefully unfocused last time, on the right course.
To that end, the attack dog of the 2008 GOP campaign now avoids sniping at his Republican challengers and he tries not to get drawn into tiffs with them; his campaign rarely responds to criticism.
"Until somebody pops up and shows he can be real contender against the Romney, there's no reason for him to spend time or money against them," said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who previously advised former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Most of Romney's GOP rivals, for their part, are busy campaigning in Iowa — and picking fights with each other — ahead of the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames, an early test of campaigns' organizations and backers. It's a make-or-break event for some of Romney's rivals as they look to emerge as the main challenger to him.
Romney's not competing in it.
Rather, in between a slew of fundraisers and events in early primary states — he's slated to visit the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 11 and will spend much of the rest of the month in New Hampshire — he's choosing to spend his time in places like Ohio.
His visit Wednesday — to a state whose unemployment rate rose to 8.8 percent last month — shined a spotlight on his approach.
In a small town near Columbus, Romney walked through a warehouse packed with heavy industrial equipment and then delivered 20 minutes of remarks under a banner of "More Jobs, Better Jobs."
It included his familiar criticisms of Obama — that he's hurt the economy, left Wall Street confused and has failed on trade deals— and his pitch that a Romney administration would focus on promoting trade to help rebuild the economy.
His aides kept reporters at a distance and he largely sidestepped reporters' questions. When pressed on the week's biggest news — negotiations in Washington over increasing the nation's credit card limit — Romney said he wouldn't comment on the day-to-day developments but used the opportunity to distinguish himself from Obama.
"I indicated in the very beginning that my view is we should have a president who agrees to cut, cap and balance the federal deficit, the federal budget," Romney said, suggesting Obama wasn't that president.
Elliott reported from Washington.