BOSTON — Mitt Romney, hoping to draw a sharp contrast on welfare, is citing a disputed charge that President Barack Obama is giving recipients a free ride, and he can point to his own record of pushing for tighter rules.
Romney, Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007, fought to require single parents with children as young as a year old to work to get welfare benefits if they could obtain state-subsidized child care. He opposed efforts to allow time spent in job training or education programs to count toward the state's 20-hour weekly work requirement for welfare recipients, and pushed for a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits.
At the time, Massachusetts was one of only five states without a lifetime limit, instead allowing welfare recipients to claim benefits two years out of every five-year period.
Despite his tougher stand, Romney also tried to shield welfare benefits from budget cuts as the state struggled with sinking revenues.
"There are a number of areas where I feel significant cuts would be too difficult on such short notice. I did not cut welfare payments," Romney said in a televised address in 2003 explaining his state budget proposal after just four weeks on the job. "In fact, the majority of state programs for the poor and elderly were not touched."
As the GOP presidential nominee, Romney has been criticized for shifting his position on everything from abortion and embryonic stem cell research to health care. But his stand on welfare has remained relatively constant.
Despite his record as governor, his campaign has come under increasing criticism for leveling what Democrats and many independent fact-checkers say are dubious charges against Obama.
Romney's campaign alleges in remarks and TV ads that Obama is loosening welfare restrictions by ending a provision that requires welfare recipients to work. Romney has told voters again and again he'd restore the work requirement to the federal program.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum made the attack line a big part of his speech to the GOP convention, saying that Obama "showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare."
Yet numerous independent fact-checkers, including The Associated Press, have determined that Romney and his surrogates are distorting the facts.
The White House says the waivers Obama approved for states recently would only allow them to drop the work requirement if they can accomplish the same goals using different methods.
In Massachusetts, Romney clashed not only with Democratic leaders but also with advocates for those on welfare. Those advocates said some of his recommendations were harmful to children, particularly those requiring parents of young children, often mothers, to work up to 20 hours a week to maintain their benefits.
In a state with a liberal reputation, Romney's tough stand put him at odds with a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Yet it also placed him in line with some of his GOP gubernatorial predecessors in Massachusetts.
Romney vetoed a proposal sent to him by the Legislature during his first year to allow welfare recipients to use time spent in training and education classes to satisfy the state work requirement. It later overturned Romney's veto.
During his second year, Romney took another stab at toughening welfare requirements, again pushing to require more parents currently receiving welfare benefits to go to work.
By 2005, Romney sought to increase the pressure even more by proposing rules that would mandate welfare recipients with children as young as a year old to start working 20 hours a week to earn their state benefits.
In his state of the state address that year, Romney outlined his efforts to bring what he called "real welfare reform to Massachusetts," saying part of his goal was to help get those on welfare back into the workforce as quickly as possible.
"People from both political parties have long recognized that welfare without work creates negative incentives that lead to permanent poverty," Romney said. "It robs people of self-esteem."
Throughout his term, Romney often found himself at odds with welfare advocates, who said his tougher line would ultimately hurt the children of those on welfare and make it difficult for recipients to find jobs that would allow them to support their families.
During his final year in office, Romney and Democratic lawmakers again clashed over the best way to overhaul the state's welfare laws.
The House and Senate passed a bill they said would require more welfare recipients to work, but critics, including Romney, said the plan didn't go far enough, jeopardizing millions in federal welfare dollars.
The Legislature's bill would have required about 16,000 of the state's 45,600 welfare recipients to work. Romney proposed a series of amendments he said would put more than 25,500 recipients to work.
Among those was his push to require women with children between 1 and 2 years old to work if they could obtain state-subsidized child care. Romney also wanted to require disabled welfare recipients to meet the stricter federal definition of disability rather than a more lenient state definition.
The Legislature ended its formal session that year without taking final action on the welfare overhaul bill.
Asked for comment on his welfare record, Romney's campaign cited his remarks this month in Iowa, saying he pushed for tougher work requirements for those receiving benefits.
"People who receive payments from government are going to be required to work, not as a punitive measure, but as a gift. Work is enhancing. Work is elevating," Romney said in Iowa. "I want more people working if they're going to receive government assistance."
Miga reported from Washington.