DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican Mitt Romney said Tuesday President Barack Obama's support for increased federal debt has put the economy on a disastrous course, portraying himself in a speech in battleground Iowa as the defender of fiscal responsibility and his opponent as reckless.
Calling for sharp spending cuts and a long-term budget discipline, Romney is trying to frame the campaign against the Democrat as a contest of fairness versus irresponsibility.
"A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation and every day we fail to act we feed that fire with our own lack of resolve," Romney said, according to excerpts of a speech he's scheduled to deliver on his first trip to Iowa since January.
The White House promptly dismissed Romney's critique. Press secretary Jay Carney blamed federal overspending primarily on Romney-backed tax cuts for the wealthy that were enacted during President George W. Bush's administration and on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Carney said Romney wants to repeat policies that led to high deficits and the recession and repeal Obama policies "that reversed the cataclysmic decline on our economy and that now has us growing for 11 straight quarters."
Romney's debt-and-spending argument is also the counter-argument to Obama's emphasis on fairness, in which the president is asking more of wealthier Americans by eliminating tax breaks and loopholes.
It comes as Wall Street deals with the fallout of revelations that one of the nation's most trusted banks made bad bets and lost billions of dollars, and in the wake of disappointing job growth for the month of April.
The speech also shows Romney's effort to focus on the economy, voters' No. 1 concern, after several days in which gay marriage dominated the campaign debate. Obama announced last Wednesday that he supports gay marriage, after publicly opposing it but saying his position was "evolving."
Romney opposes gay marriage and reaffirmed his position while delivering a weekend graduation speech at a conservative Christian university in Virginia.
Romney's speech in Des Moines also marked an effort to paint the wealthy, former private equity firm executive as a live-by-the-rules citizen, not a detached elitist, as the Obama campaign has sought to portray him.
An Obama campaign ad scheduled to run Wednesday in battleground states, including Iowa, casts Romney as a vicious corporate raider. The ad, told in the words of former employees of a failed Kansas City, Mo., steel mill, notes how Romney's firm Bain Capital failed to restructure the company, and cut jobs and benefits.
The ad goes to the heart of Romney's chief argument, that he is better adept by virtue of years of private sector business experience and as the former governor of Massachusetts to hone the federal government and encourage job creation.
"As president, I will approach debt and spending differently. My time spent building businesses and leading state government taught me that we need to hold every department and agency to a simple test: If something can be done better and more efficiently outside the federal government, then that's where it belongs," Romney says, according to the excerpts released by his campaign.
Romney countered that while at Bain Capital and as governor he helped create tens of thousands of public and private sector jobs. His campaign released a web video promoting his time at Bain.
Although Romney's private-sector experience has been used against him before, Obama's campaign is introducing the argument in battleground states before the Nov. 6 election. One of his rivals for the Republican nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, characterized Romney as a corporate raider before the New Hampshire primary in January. Another rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, referred to Romney as a "vulture capitalist."
Besides Iowa, Obama's ad also was scheduled to air in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. He won all five states in 2008 and all are viewed as competitive this year.
Romney's Iowa stop also returns the political spotlight to this Midwestern state, where both campaigns see opportunity in their battle for the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency.
Romney finished in a near-tie for first place in the state's Jan. 3 caucuses. Obama won Iowa's Democratic caucuses four years ago and carried the state in the general election.
Obama was more aggressive in visiting Iowa this spring as Romney campaigned for the GOP nomination.
Obama's new ad marks his fifth this year. The campaign has spent more than $2.5 million on advertising in Iowa, which will yield only six electoral votes. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives have visited the state this year.
Romney's focus on the general election came as he was still inching toward the Republican nomination, with voters heading to the polls in Oregon on Tuesday.
Romney has campaigned recently in Colorado, Ohio and Virginia, as well as in GOP-leaning Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma for fundraisers.
He was scheduled to travel to Florida, another key battleground, on Wednesday.