SAN ANTONIO — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney castigated "career politicians" Tuesday as he tried to distinguish himself from chief rival Rick Perry while on the governor's home turf in Texas.
"I am a conservative businessman. I spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy," Romney said told the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention in San Antonio. "Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out."
Romney didn't mention Perry by name during the speech, which comes as national polls show Perry with more support than Romney. For months, Romney has led the pack seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
Even so, the contrast Romney is seeking to draw is clear. He was a businessman who founded a venture capital firm and headed the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City before serving a single term as Massachusetts governor. Perry is Texas' longest-serving governor and has been an elected public official for 27 years, having served as lieutenant governor, agricultural commissioner and a state representative before becoming governor in 2000.
Tuesday's remarks provide strong clues about Romney's strategy for trying to derail Perry, who jolted the race earlier this month by formally becoming a candidate. At a time when the electorate is suffering economically and has shown a willingness to embrace outsiders, Romney is trying to paint Perry as just another politician on the inside who doesn't understand how to create jobs. He doesn't mention that Texas added tens of thousands of jobs on Perry's watch, though critics question how much credit the governor can claim.
At the same time, Romney is seeking to paint himself as the outsider — even though he's essentially been running for president since 2006. He lost the GOP nomination to John McCain in 2008 and spent the next couple years quietly laying the groundwork for a second bid. To voters looking for a candidate, Romney promotes his time as an executive at consulting firm Bain and Company and as the founder of Bain Capital, a venture capital and investment company.
Romney's advisers are eyeing Perry's rise in popularity closely. Perry's late entry forced a recalibration of Romney's pitch as a proven executive in both the public and private spheres. With a decade as Texas governor, Perry's candidacy stands to edge out Romney's claim as the most experienced executive in the race.
During his speech to an audience about half the size that Perry drew a day earlier, Romney pointed to his years outside Washington and in the private sector, saying they gave him a fresh perspective on how best to manage federal defense spending.
"I look at that kind of inefficiency and bloat and say, 'Let me at it,' " Romney said. He won his most enthusiastic applause when he promised to slice billions of dollars in waste, inefficiency and bureaucracy from the defense budget to free up money for modern ships and planes, more troops and ensuring that veterans have the care they deserve.
Romney lingered for about 10 minutes after his speech, shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for pictures with veterans. Many of those who came forward to greet him were from Massachusetts or Michigan, where Romney's father was governor.
Addressing the VFW, the nation's oldest major organization of veterans, on Monday, Perry said the U.S. should avoid "military adventurism" abroad. He also said that when it comes time to fight, U.S. combat troops must be led by American commanders.
Perry also said U.S. authorities have turned their backs on too many veterans returning home from recent combat, saying "we must take care of them, every one of them."