WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Mitt Romney has locked himself into "extreme positions" on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected, trying to discredit his Republican rival at the biggest political moment of his life.
In a 25-minute interview conducted in the library of the White House residence with the Associated Press, Obama said Romney lacks serious ideas, refuses to "own up" to the responsibilities of what it takes to be president, and deals in factually dishonest arguments that could soon haunt him in face-to-face debates.
Obama also offered a glimpse of how he would govern in a second term of divided government, insisting rosily that the forces of the election would help break Washington's stalemate. He said he would be willing to make a range of compromises with Republicans, confident there are some who would rather make deals than remain part of "one of the least productive Congresses in American history."
The president depicted his opponent as having accumulated ideas far outside the mainstream with no room to turn back.
"I can't speak to Gov. Romney's motivations," Obama said. "What I can say is that he has signed up for positions, extreme positions, that are very consistent with positions that a number of House Republicans have taken. And whether he actually believes in those or not, I have no doubt that he would carry forward some of the things that he's talked about."
Obama spoke Thursday before heading off to a long weekend with his family at Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains.
Romney, a successful former executive of a private equity firm and one-time Massachusetts governor, will introduce himself to a TV audience of millions when he takes the convention stage in Tampa to accept his party's presidential nomination. He has offered himself as a business-minded alternative to Obama and has seized on voter concerns about joblessness and the direction of the nation.
Nearly ten weeks before Election Day, the race is remarkably stable and reflective of a sharply divided nation, with registered voters about evenly split on their choice and nearly a quarter of them unsure or still willing to change their mind. Across the interview, Obama's messages often seemed directed at moderate and independent voters whose sway could make the difference.
In explaining his accusation of "extreme" positions, the president cited Romney's call for across-the-board tax cuts that Obama said would mostly help the rich at the expense of everyone else and cost the nation $5 trillion. Obama singled out Romney's opposition to tax credits for producers of wind energy, the kind of issue that carries large political resonance in a battleground state such as Iowa.
And Obama alluded to the provocative issue of abortion, suddenly thrust to the fore this week when Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said the female body has a way to "shut that whole thing down" when a woman is the victim of "legitimate rape."
The Republican platform in Tampa calls for a ban on abortion with no specific exceptions for rape or other circumstances. Obama predicted that a President Romney would not "stand in the way" if Congress gave him a bill that stripped away women's control over their reproductive health.
Romney is on record, however, as not opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save the mother's life.
Obama holds a broad lead as the candidate more trusted to handle those social issues among Democrats and independents. The issue is one of Romney's biggest vulnerabilities among moderate and liberal Republicans.
Obama also sought to chip away at Romney's trustworthiness, taking fresh shots at Romney's refusal to release years of tax returns for public inspection. He said that position was indicative of a candidate who has a "lack of willingness to take responsibility for what this job entails."
Yet it is the economy that has driven this election and has dominated Obama's message of a middle-class revival.
"We aren't where we need to be. Everybody agrees with that," said Obama, who inherited an economy in free fall and now bears responsibility for a recovery that remains weak. "But Gov. Romney's policies would make things worse for middle-class families and offer no prospect for long-term opportunity for those striving to get into the middle class," the president said.
Obama holds a decisive advantage over Romney when Americans are asked who better understands their daily woes. Yet nearly two-thirds of people in a new AP-GfK poll say the economy is in poor shape, and 60 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Obama and Romney hold three debates in October. The president said Romney could run into trouble because of arguments that are not backed up by facts, citing a widely debunked television ad campaign in which Romney accuses Obama of gutting the work requirement in the federal welfare law.
If Republicans are willing, Obama said, "I'm prepared to make a whole range of compromises" that could even rankle his own party.