Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opened a new front on Wednesday in his fight against President Barack Obama, accusing him of presiding over a failing U.S. education system that is in the grip of union bosses who refuse to accept reforms.
In a rare diversion from his campaign focus on the weak U.S. economy, Romney laid out an education plan in a speech that represented his most overt appeal to date to Hispanic voters who have largely sided with the Democratic incumbent.
Although he trails Obama by a huge margin among Hispanics, Romney's address to a Hispanic business group avoided mentioning a top priority for them: how to overhaul the country's immigration system.
Romney said millions of American children are getting a "third-world education," and offered proposals that he said would reward teachers for their results instead of their seniority. And he would give parents greater choice of where to send their children to school and take other steps to reduce the influence of powerful teachers' unions.
"I believe the president must be troubled by the lack of progress since he took office. Most likely, he would have liked to do more. But the teachers unions are one of the Democrats' biggest donors - and one of the president's biggest campaign supporters. So, President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses - and unwilling to stand up for kids," Romney said.
Romney's focus on education comes during a spirited battle in Washington over student loan programs. Obama's Democrats have been pushing for an extension of low-interest loan rates for federal student loans to avoid a doubling of the rates from 3.4 percent. After an extended partisan fight, a compromise with Republicans is expected by the July 1 deadline.
The former Massachusetts governor is running neck-and-neck with Obama in polls, a prelude to what could be a close election.
His education drive gave respite from fighting with Obama over how best to hasten growth of the U.S. economy, and increasingly heated rhetoric between the two over Romney's time as the head of a corporate buyout company Bain Capital.
HISPANICS AND EDUCATION
Hispanics will likely be crucial to the election.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC/Telemundo poll out this week showed Obama leading Romney with Hispanic voters 61 percent to 27 percent. Romney is only now starting a push to try to peel some of them away because of their potential influence in swing states like New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.
But Romney went almost an hour at his event, including a speech and taking questions from the event moderator, without mentioning the U.S. immigration system and how he would deal with 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
During the Republican primary battle, Romney and his rivals upset many Hispanics by adopting hard-right immigration positions. Romney called for the "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants.
On Wednesday, he kept his speech to education, also a top issue for Hispanic voters although one that rarely ignites much passion on the campaign.
Hispanic Republican strategists said Romney was wise to keep his focus on education and the economy, noting that in several polls, Hispanic voters rate the economy well ahead of immigration as the issue they care about most.
"Clearly, it appears that Governor Romney has chosen to focus on what the vast majority of U.S. Hispanics and Latinos feel is of highest priority," said Daniel Garza, a Republican strategist and executive director of The Libre Initiative.
Standing before a banner that read "A Chance for Every Child," Romney laid out an education plan that relies heavily on bolstering and improving the No Child Left Behind education law engineered by Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Romney made more money and more access to charter schools the centerpiece of his platform, but he launched a strong attack on teachers' unions.
"The teachers' unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way," Romney said.
The education speech was a welcome break for Romney, who has been under a barrage of accusations from Democrats that he killed blue-collar jobs when he was head of Bain in the 1990s.
Bain bought and restructured companies, sometimes resulting in a loss of jobs. But Romney says the company more than made up for that by helping to establish companies that became big employers, like office supplies store Staples.
He told Time magazine that business experience gave him the savvy to fix the U.S. economy, and he welcomed scrutiny of his record.
"The fact is that I spent 25 years in the private sector. And that obviously teaches you something that you don't learn if you haven't spent any time in the private sector," Romney told Time.
While Romney is often ahead of Obama in opinion polls on the economy, the president's foreign policy credentials weigh in Obama's favor compared to the former Massachusetts governor who has little foreign experience.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized Romney for taking advice from foreign policy advisers who are "quite far to the right," in an sign of lingering strains from his tenure under President George W. Bush.
He made clear that he is not happy with some of the neo-conservatives who are advising Romney and took exception to a recent comment from Romney that Russia is the top U.S. geopolitical threat.
"Come on Mitt, think! That isn't the case," said Powell.
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