ST. PETERSBURG — Beside a national debt clock ominously ticking upward of $16 trillion, Mitt Romney on Wednesday used his first Florida campaign appearance as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to blast President Barack Obama for broken promises and fiscal recklessness.
"It's high time that we have a president who will stop this spending and borrowing inferno and I will. I'll get the job done," Romney told several hundred enthusiastic supporters at the Mirror Lake Lyceum in St. Petersburg. "I'm concerned about this country. I'm concerned about the debt. I'm concerned about the spending. I find it incomprehensible that a president could come to office and call his predecessor's record irresponsible and unpatriotic, and then do almost nothing to fix it and instead every year to add more and more and more spending."
But as he headed to Tampa for a fundraising reception that raised $2.3 million, Romney's attack on the president's spending record left unclear how the former Massachusetts governor's largely vague budget plans — cutting taxes and ramping up defense spending — will rein in the country's deficit. He has avoided identifying tax loopholes he would eliminate or specifically where he would make dramatic budget cuts required to make a real dent in the deficit.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 on Wednesday, Romney mentioned eliminating subsidies for the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak, which make up a fraction of federal spending. And in his public remarks, Romney drew a standing ovation when he promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said would cut nearly a trillion dollars by 2016.
But in addition to spending tens of billions of dollars to expand health care coverage, the health care law includes provisions to reduce the deficit, such as taxing high-end health care plans, charging fees to health insurers and slowing the growth of Medicare spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that repealing all of the health care reform would reduce the deficit by just $16 billion by 2016 and over the longer term could actually add to the deficit.
Nonpartisan budget analysts say drastic cuts to domestic spending — everything from education and health spending to border security — would be required to meet Romney's goals. Romney, who also supports turning over to the states programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to slash spending, said Wednesday it's past time for hard decisions on federal spending. The alternative is to follow the lead of Greece.
"Austerity programs, when they come at the last minute as an emergency, can really be painful for the economy. But if we take action now in America and take small adjustments that are dramatic in a certain way but ultimately get us to a balanced budget, that's the way to go," he told the Times and Bay News 9.
After his morning speech in St. Petersburg, Romney headed to the Avila Golf & Country Club in north Tampa, where some 200 supporters gathered, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and incoming Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.
Guests paid as much as $50,000 to attend the fundraiser. Ambassador Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg said Romney's two-day fundraising swing through Florida, including stops in Miami Wednesday evening and Jacksonville and Boca Raton today, should bring in about $10 million.
Romney on Wednesday also weighed in for the first time on efforts by the state GOP to ensure that they can send as many activists as possible to the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Aug. 27-30. The national party cut the state's delegation in half to 50 as punishment for scheduling an earlier-than-allowed primary, and Florida Republican leaders want Romney to step in so that the biggest battleground state and host of the convention receives some leniency.
"I don't have an announcement today, but you can imagine given the big boost that I got from the people of Florida, the Florida delegation has a very warm spot in my heart, so I'll work with the Republican National Committee, which ultimately sets the rules, and you'll know which way I'm pulling," Romney said in the interview. "There's no question I have a very warm spot in my heart for the Florida delegation."
Romney scheduled several quick interviews with Tampa Bay media outlets Wednesday, but campaign aides infuriated national reporters who cover Romney daily by blocking them from asking him questions at the "rope line" separating him and his supporters. Hours later the campaign called it a mistake.
Romney drew small bands of protesters in St. Petersburg and Tampa.
On the manicured grass outside the security gates restricting visitors into the exclusive Avila neighborhood, eight sign-holding protesters rallied against Romney's visit. The group, called Florida Dreamers, focused on Romney's pledge to veto the DREAM Act if it ever reached his desk.
The DREAM Act would give undocumented college students and military members a path to citizenship.
Francisco Alvarez, 20, said if Romney is a true conservative, he should be backing the DREAM Act since it rewards hard working, ambitious and patriotic young people and not the unproductive.
"For me, the DREAM Act is the best case of conservative legislation out there," said Alvarez, a George Washington University engineering student from Winter Haven. "It's a conservative ideal."
In St. Petersburg, members of the Florida Consumer Action Network group protested Romney's appearance by lying on the concrete with a red carpet draped over them. As Romney supporters walked by, they shouted, "Go ahead! Walk on the 99 percent!"
One passer-by turned and responded — "Luckily you don't vote!" — but most walked past in silence.
Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times staff writer Justin George contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]
CORRECTION: The U.S. national debt is approaching $16 trillion. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect figure.