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 Wednesday in Mississippi, back-slapping at a popular barbecue joint before delivering a speech that questioned Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s foreign policy and economic credentials.
His time at Mississippi State University marked Romney’s third public appearance since he revealed earlier this month that he’s considering in another presidential run.
“I’m thinking about how I can help the country,” he told hundreds of students Wednesday night.
In his comeback bid, Romney has focused particular attention on the poor and middle class as he tries to broaden his appeal after being cast in 2012 as an out-of-touch multimillionaire.
“How can Secretary Clinton provide opportunity for all if she doesn’t know where jobs come from in the first place?” Romney said, squarely attacking the Democrats’ potential 2016 nominee.
“We need to restore opportunity, particularly for the middle class,” Romney said. “You deserve a job that can repay all you’ve spent and borrowed to go to college.”
In a follow-up question-and-answer sessions, he added: “The rich are fine in America. They’re fine almost regardless of who’s the president.”
Before his evening address on campus, Romney stopped at the popular barbecue joint Little Dooey, 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 of Massachusetts. “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.”
A few minutes later, Romney and the Mullens chatted over barbecue, comparing their business, political and sports experience. When Mullen — who led his Bulldogs to an Orange Bowl appearance last season — mentioned the difficulty of losing, Romney asked, “So what do you do?”
In his address, Romney outlined three principles that could serve as the foundation of a campaign: national security, improving opportunities for the middle class and ending poverty. The latter two principles are newly prominent for Romney, and he’s explained them with references to his personal faith and work in the Mormon church — personal testimony he didn’t always offer in 2008 and 2012.
In previous campaigns, Romney fueled his critics 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 per cent of Americans who “believe they are victims” and “pay no income tax.”
On Wednesday night, he managed to joke about his wealth, insisting his public life isn’t about generating attention or speaking fees. “As you may have heard,” he said, “I’m already rich.”
A Clinton spokesman did not immediately respond to Romney’s 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.
Romney has acknowledged privately in recent weeks that he will make a decision about the 2016 campaign soon. While Romney was the overwhelming establishment favourite 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.
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.
At Mississippi State, Romney sidestepped any mention of his would-be Republican rivals, instead using Clinton and Obama as foils.
“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.”
He blasted Obama for not doing enough to prevent Iran from expanding its nuclear capabilities, and endorsed House Speaker John Boehner’s controversial invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.
Romney also criticized the Democrats’ “war on poverty,” saying it’s time to abandon the “liberal policies” of President Lyndon Johnson and his successors. “It’s finally time to apply conservative policies that improve America’s education system, promote family formation and create good-paying jobs,” he said, though he avoided any policy specifics.
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 reporters Steve Peoples and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report Washington, D.C.