WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) - Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney visited Rhode Island on Wednesday for a town-hall meeting where he slammed President Obama's economic record ahead of the state's April 24 primary.
"I'd like to win this state in November," Romney told a cheering crowd estimated at more than 300, plus dozens of members of the national and local press, at a ballroom in the Warwick Crowne Plaza. A Republican hasn't won Rhode Island since Ronald Reagan did back in 1984.
Romney spent most of his speech criticizing Obama for spending too much money, failing to turn around the economy, burdening businesses with regulations and not doing enough for women. But he also made a number of references specific to the Ocean State.
"I love your former governor, Governor [Don] Carcieri – I just love that man," Romney said of his fellow Republican, who endorsed him in 2008 and this year. "Is he around here?" Carcieri did not attend Romney's event.
"I'm from Massachusetts and you must have a border security problem to let me in," Romney joked at one point. He also noted Carcieri managed to woo Fidelity Investments from Massachusetts to Rhode Island while they were both governors.
Romney's visit comes a day after his chief rival, Rick Santorum, said he would drop out of the race. Asked whether he would consider making Santorum his vice presidential pick, Romney said: "Everybody's on my list. I'm not taking anybody off the list." Then he added: " I don't have a list yet."
Another candidate, Ron Paul, will hold a rally at the University of Rhode Island next week and local Republicans said they are hopeful Newt Gingrich's wife, Calista, will visit the state before April 24, too.
Romney came to Rhode Island after holding another campaign event in Connecticut. Prior to the Warwick town hall meeting, he met with a group of small businesswomen in a push to counter President Obama's argument that the Republican Party is waging a so-called "war on women."
"This is a president who also has some explaining to do to the women in America," Romney said. "The real war on women has been waged by this president's economic policies."
The former Massachusetts governor ticked off a long list of Obama policies he opposes, including the health reform law, the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul and the 2009 stimulus package. He repeatedly warned the country is providing too much to Americans who don't work.
Romeny cast the choice voters will face between him and Obama in stark terms: "We're going to have freedom and opportunity on the ballot, and they're going to decide if we're going to preserve those things are not."
One promise Romney made that could have a direct impact on Rhode Island was a pledge to build 17 naval warships a year, which he said would be nearly the double the nine built annually now. He also said he would give states more control over federal programs such as Medicaid.
Romney is widely expected to win an easy victory in the Rhode Island Republican primary, just as President Obama is widely expected to win the state in November. Obama won 63% of the vote in Rhode Island against John McCain in 2008, with only Hawaii and Vermont delivering him a bigger landslide.
Among the prominent local Republicans on hand for Romney's event Wednesday were congressional candidate Brendan Doherty, Senate candidate Barry Hinckley, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and a number of state lawmakers.
Hinckley asked Romney about the so-called "Buffett Rule" to raise taxes on millionaires proposed by his opponent, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, and backed by Obama. State Rep. Doreen Costa, R-South Kingstown, asked Romney to crack down on illegal immigration.
"He's charismatic," state Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, told WPRI.com after the event. "He connects with the audience. There is nothing detached about this man. And he knows how to turn this country around."
Doherty said he and Carcieri met with Romney while the former Massachusetts governor was campaigning in New Hampshire earlier this year, and came away impressed.
"I'm really impressed with the way he comports himself, the way he comported himself as governor of Massachusetts, the way he handled the Olympics," Doherty said. "We need leaders in this country."
Romney seemed to get a particular kick out of the kimono-like, dragon-covered pants worn by one of the people who asked him a question, Karl Wadensten, president of the local manufacturer VIBCO. Wadensten explained that dragons are a symbol of "new beginnings."
Romney also sounded a hawkish note on China, saying the Asian nation has been "cheating" in the international economy and pledging: "I will label China as a currency manipulator." That's a step Obama has refused to take, despite being urged to do so by Whitehouse and others.
Democrats including state party Chairman Ed Pacheco and state Rep. Teresa Tanzi were on hand outside the hall before Romney arrived, criticizing the Republican for his positions on women's issues. Earlier in the day, a campaign spokesman declined to say if the GOP candidate supported the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act.