CHICAGO -- Declaring that "our economic freedom will be on the ballot" in November, Mitt Romney denounced President Obama's economic polices as an escalating threat to the nation's prosperity.
"The Obama Administration's assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid," Mr. Romney said at a speech at the University of Chicago.
While he had observed at an earlier appearance Monday that the economy was improving, he said, "If we don't change course now, this assault on freedom could damage our economy and the well-being of Americans for decades to come."
In a speech delivered just hours before the polls open in Illinois, Mr. Romney never mentioned his rivals for the GOP nomination.
While offering relatively few details of his own economic proposals, the Republican front-runner concentrated on an indictment of the President's fundamental understanding of the economy and the culture that shapes it.
"We see this attack on our freedom in every corner of the economy," Mr. Romney said as he criticized the President's call for higher rates on upper-income taxpayers, the Dodd-Frank legislation that increases oversight of financial institutions, and an overall regulatory approach that he contended was stifling business.
"For every regulation, there are unintended consequences, underestimated costs, and unwanted influence from special interests. And, of course, the bureaucratic impulse is to make more rules, never to reduce them," he said. "All those regulations erode our freedom and stifle prosperity."
In a subsequent conference call with reporters, Obama campaign officials gave the critique a dismissive rebuttal.
"I think what we heard was another over-hyped speech from Gov. Romney that was filled with lofty rhetoric, but no new policy ideas and no explanations about the policies that he has already proposed," said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
Mr. Romney spoke at a university where Mr. Obama had been a law school faculty member, just blocks from the Hyde Park neighborhood where the President lives. He told the university crowd that the President was a champion of crony capitalism.
"When the government invested $500 million in Solyndra, you can imagine that scores of other solar energy entrepreneurs and enterprises either lost their investors or failed to find any," he said.
He also returned to his criticism of the administration's bailout of the auto industry.
"When General Motors shares were directed to the UAW, political payback replaced the rule of law, and the rule of law is fundamental to economic freedom," he said.
Mr. Romney mocked a recent speech in which the President had invoked the spirits of such figures as the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison.
"The reality is that, under President Obama's administration, these pioneers would have found it much more difficult, if not impossible, to innovate, invent, and create," he asserted. "Under Dodd-Frank, they would have struggled to get loans from their community banks. A regulator would have shut down the Wright Brothers for their 'dust pollution.' And the government would have banned Thomas Edison's light bulb -- oh yeah, Obama's regulators actually did just that."
Mr. Romney neglected to point out that the federal pressure to increase light bulb efficiency is rooted in legislation passed in 2007 under the Bush administration.
Mr. Romney spoke in Chicago in response to an invitation from the university. Administrators said the other presidential candidates had been invited but so far none had accepted.
One questioner pressed him on the fact that the tax cuts he has proposed threaten to further escalate the federal deficit that he and other Republican candidates criticize.
The core of Mr. Romney's economic plan comprises tax and spending cuts. He would lower marginal income tax rates by 20 percent across the board. Corporate tax rates would fall from 35 percent to 25 percent, and he would eliminate the capital gains tax on investment income for taxpayers earning less than $200,000 a year. Mr. Romney would cap overall federal spending at 20 percent of the gross domestic product.
While he has called for increases in defense spending, the former governor says the revenue forgone by his tax cuts would be balanced by yet to be detailed spending reductions and elimination of current tax deductions.
Mr. Romney insisted that his fiscal plan was revenue neutral because, in addition to spending cuts, it would be balanced by the surge in tax revenue that he says would result from the economic growth that it would foster.
In the Obama campaign conference call, Cecilia Rouse, professor of economics at Princeton University, sharply questioned those assumptions. She pointed to independent analyses that suggest the Romney plan would actually increase the deficit by as much as $5 trillion over the next decade. And she argued that the tax cuts he has proposed would disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
Ms. Rouse, a former member of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, estimated that the Romney package would reduce taxes by 10 percent for those making more than $500,000 annually, by about 3 percent for middle income taxpayers, and actually increase taxes for those earning less than $30,000.
Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney's top challenger for the Republican nomination, campaigned hard across Illinois Sunday and Monday in light of the stakes. Illinois is one of the last premier battlegrounds before the GOP race enters an extended lull after Saturday's contest in Louisiana. "If we're able to come out of Illinois with a huge or surprise win, I guarantee you, I guarantee you that we will win this nomination," Mr. Santorum said.
He rallied conservatives on Monday in Dixon, Ill., hometown of President Ronald Reagan, saying that Mr. Obama's health-care overhaul, not the economy, is the election's "most salient issue."
"The campaign doesn't hinge in unemployment rates," he said later. "We conservatives don't believe government creates jobs."
The comments sparked criticism Mr. Romney picked up on at his final campaign stop of the day at Bradley University in central Illinois. Although he never mentioned his principal challenger in his university speech, Mr. Romney pounced on his rival.
"One of the people who's running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn't care about the unemployment rate; that doesn't bother him," Mr. Romney said. "I do care about the unemployment rate; it does bother me. I want to put people back to work; I'm concerned about those who are out of work."
In remarks in Rockford, Ill., Mr. Santorum said an oppressive government rather than the economy is the real issue of the presidential campaign.
"At every single speech that I give I talk about Obamacare," he said.
"Every single speech I say that the issue in this race is not the economy. The reason the economy is an issue in this race is because we have a government that is oppressing its people and taking away their freedom and the economy is suffering as a result of it."
Mr. Santorum later explained his comments as being about freedom, not the economy.
"The problem with the economy is government taking people's freedom away and advancing regulations, destroying and undermining businesses ability to be problem solvers," he told Chicago radio station WLS. "Americans don't take kindly to the yoke of government, and we don't do very well. Our economy struggles when that happens."
Mr. Romney planned to wait for the Illinois returns at a hotel in the Chicago suburbs.
Mr. Santorum planned to watch the results from Gettysburg, Pa.
Several pre-election polls have depicted Mr. Romney as the leader in a reasonably competitive race here. But a new survey from Public Policy Polling, an independent but Democratic-leaning firm, showed Mr. Romney moving into a commanding position.
The PPP numbers, released just a day before the balloting, showed Mr. Romney taking a 15-point lead over the former Pennsylvania senator.
The next GOP contest will be Saturday in Louisiana, where Mr. Santorum hopes for better results after his victories last week in Alabama and Mississippi.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is the politics editor of the Post-Gazette. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact James O'Toole at: email@example.com.