ORLANDO -- Mitt Romney is one of the wealthiest presidential candidates in U.S. history, a man who made his fortune at a prominent private equity firm.
But returning to Florida for a campaign stop in Orlando on Tuesday, the Republican nominee pressed the case that he, not President Barack Obama, best understands the needs of average Americans and small businesses.
“People across America are having a hard time,” Romney told an enthusiastic crowd of 400 people on the factory floor of Con-Air Industries, an air filter company. “The president doesn’t understand how his policies have made things so hard for the American people. It’s finally time to have a president who is in touch with what’s happening in America.”
It’s an unexpected reversal of roles. Obama’s campaign has tried to establish the campaign narrative of Romney, the son of a governor who made millions in the rarefied world of private capital, as being unable to relate to Main Street America.
Last week, however, Obama said that the “private sector is doing fine.” Obama later said it was clear that the “economy is not doing fine,” but by then Romney’s campaign had jumped all over the comments.
Romney uttered the phrase “small business” at least 15 times during Tuesday’s 25-minute speech. He told sympathetic stories of the teacher who had lost her job. The man in St. Louis who started his own lawn care company. The woman who launched an upholstery company. He said they were examples of why government needs to get out of the way of free enterprise.
“Now the president as you know said last week that the ’private sector’ is doing fine,” Romney said. “He is so out of touch with what’s happening across America to say something like that.”
But much of Romney’s visit ran counter to his man-of-the-people message.
After the mid-morning speech at Con-Air, Romney attended a $2,500-per-person fundraiser at Isleworth Country Club in suburban Orlando, where he picked up again on his theme that Obama is out of touch with middle-income Americans. Afterward, those who donated at least $50,000 joined Romney for a private lunch at an undisclosed home in Isleworth, exclusive community of Orlando’s rich and famous.
Earlier Romney was at Con-Air Industries, founded in 1980 by Bob and Pat Hering. Since 2008, after the business moved into manufacturing the filters rather than only distributing them, Con-Air has done well.
“But it’s in spite of Obama, not because of him,” said Bob Hering, a Republican who ran for Congress in 2000. “Romney is our choice. From the mom-and-pop to the major corporation, he gets it. He understands business.”
Romney supporter Mark Pounds, who works in Con-Air’s warehouse, struggled plenty before Obama was elected. In 2007, Pounds said he was homeless and begging for money on street corners. He was hired three years ago by Bob Hering and has put his life back together with a steady job — all with Obama in the White House.
“I haven’t thought of it that way,” Pounds said. “Maybe I should.”
It was Romney’s 53rd event in Florida — a key swing state that he must win to get elected — since he launched his 2012 campaign and third event since winning the state primary in January.
Romney spent much of Tuesday’s visit criticizing “Obamacare.” He said in his first day in office, he would send a waiver to all 50 states to keep them from trying to meet additional federal requirements, if the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t repeal the health care law in a decision expected this month.
He said he would let the states spend Medicaid money the way they see fit. He’d let individuals get the same tax deductions as those available for large businesses. He’d deregulate insurance so people could purchase it across state lines.
“We can get health care to act more like a consumer market,” Romney said. “And if we do that, and we stop making it like a big government-managed utility, we’re going see better prices, lower costs and better care.”
Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said Romney’s health care plan would “result in millions more Americans becoming uninsured.”
Obama’s campaign debuted a new 30-second TV ad that will air in nine battleground states, including Florida. Titled “No. 1,” the ad says while Romney was governor of Massachusetts the state led the nation in debt and lagged in job creation.
In his speech, Romney repeated many statements that have been deemed inaccurate.
In an anecdote about a furniture store owner in Las Vegas, he said she struggled after Obama told people “don’t come to Las Vegas for your company meetings.”
PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking website, checked that claim and found Obama is on record for saying no such thing. Instead, he has said heads of corporations shouldn’t use taxpayer money for Vegas trips.
Romney also repeated a claim that Obama’s health care plan “would cut $500 billion from Medicare.”
Yet that’s not true, either. PolitiFact points out that Obama’s health care plan doesn’t reduce the Medicare budget but, rather, tries to slow growth (the size of the program will increase dollar-wise), curtailing about $500 billion in projected spending increases over the next decade.
One thing was easy to verify during Romney’s speech.
The loudest applause line came when he uttered the name of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a leading contender to be Romney’s running mate.
Tampa Bay Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.