STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mitt Romney hasn't officially declared himself a presidential candidate again, but the 2012 Republican nominee looked and sounded like one during a stop in Mississippi, back-slapping at a popular barbecue joint before delivering a speech that questions Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's foreign policy and economic credentials.
The speech at Mississippi State University marks Romney's third public appearance since he shocked the political world earlier in the month by signaling interest in another presidential run.
In his comeback bid, Romney has focused particular attention on the poor and middle class as he tries to broaden his appeal.
"How can Secretary Clinton provide opportunity for all if she doesn't know where jobs come from in the first place?" Romney says in excerpts of the speech obtained by The Associated Press.
"We need to restore opportunity, particularly for the middle class. And that will soon include you," Romney says. "You deserve a job that can repay all you've spent and borrowed to go to college."
Before his evening address on campus, Romney stopped at a popular barbecue joint, bounding out of a black SUV to shake hands with employees, townspeople and students.
He displayed a good sense of local priorities with his choice of tour guides: MSU head football Coach Dan Mullen and his wife, Megan. Dan Mullen praised Romney's record in business and as governor. "I would certainly endorse Governor Romney," he said.
When one well-wisher told Romney he'd been his choice for the White House in 2012, the former Massachusetts governor smiled and replied, "I wish I was there right now."
But he ignored questions from reporters inquiring about his plans for 2016.
Romney has consistently outlined three principles that could serve as the foundation of a campaign in his public appearances, while often referencing his work with the poor, sick and elderly as a volunteer church pastor — a topic he rarely addressed during his previous bids. His new focus includes national security, improving opportunities for the middle class and ending poverty.
The shift is designed to counter critics who have long cast Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire. He fueled the perception himself during a campaign filled with high-profile missteps tied in some way to money.
No gaffe was bigger than his remark — secretly recorded at a high-dollar Florida fundraiser — that he didn't worry about the 47 percent of Americans who "believe they are victims" and "pay no income tax."
A Clinton spokesman did not immediately respond to Romney's planned remarks, although the Democratic National Committee fired back.
"We don't really need to hear a lecture on 'where jobs come from' from a guy who's best known for bankrupting companies and profiting off of outsourcing," DNC spokesman Mo Elleithee said.
Noting strong job growth over the last year, Elleithee continued, "I don't know if Mitt Romney thinks 47 percent of those folks are 'takers,' but I am sure he's not the right guy to talk about expanding opportunity."
Romney has acknowledged privately in recent weeks that he will make a decision about the 2016 campaign soon. While Romney was the overwhelming establishment favorite in the last election, the likely 2016 field includes other economic conservatives — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who have taken steps towards campaigns of their own.
Aides say Romney will likely signal his 2016 intentions over the next two weeks.
He currently has a skeleton staff working largely on a volunteer basis, although Romney has more than $2 million in his presidential campaign fund as of late November, which would give him a significant head start over some competitors should he enter the race.
In his Wednesday speech, Romney recalls meeting people during his 2012 campaign who had fallen into poverty because of circumstances, such as losing a job, and those stuck in poverty for generations.
"These we have to help escape the tragedy and the trap of chronic generational poverty," Romney says. "It's finally time to apply conservative policies that improve America's education system, promote family formation and create good-paying jobs."
He also takes direct aim at the foreign policy record of Clinton, the overwhelming frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination should she run.
"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cluelessly pressed a reset button for Russia, which smiled and then invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation," Romney says. "We need to help make the world a safer place."
The university's Student Government Association invited Romney before he'd talked of a 2016 campaign. Romney aides said he is donating his $50,000 speaking fee, minus his travel costs, to CharityVision, a Utah-based organization that offers eye care to the poor.
Associated Press reporter Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report. Peoples and Kuhnhenn reported from Washington, D.C.