WASHINGTON – President Obama doesn't grasp what makes the country so great, Mitt Romney said Wednesday praising America's resilience and ability to overcome terrible challenges and saying the president wants to create an entitlement society that is causing the U.S. economy to stagnate.
"I don't think he understands America," the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate said in his address to a Republican Jewish Coalition forum.
"A merit-based, opportunity society gathers and creates a citizenry that pioneers, that invents, that builds and creates. And as these people exert the effort and take the risks inherent in invention and creation, they employ and lift the rest of us, creating prosperity for us all," he said. "American prosperity is fully dependent upon our opportunity society. I don't think President Obama understands that."
Obama's campaign fired back, accusing Romney of blaming the middle class for the challenges they face.
"Instead of believing that Americans are greater together, he believes the middle class and those fighting to enter it are on their own," said Obama campaign Press Secretary Ben LaBolt. "In fact, he's stacking the decks against them by adopting the same policies that created the economic crisis we're still recovering from -- more tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires and large corporations and letting Wall Street write its own rules again."
The exchange demonstrated the flavor that the campaign could take if Romney wins the nomination. The Obama campaign has been targeting Romney from the early days of the Republican primary race, and surrogates have likened Romney to Gordon Gekko, the despised character of the "Wall Street" movie franchise who once claimed "greed is good."
But Romney fired back hard on Wednesday, saying Obama's concept of "fundamental change" affects not only the economy, but foreign relations as well.
"The president promised that he would fundamentally change America. He is doing just that. ... He is building a government so large that feeding it consumes a greater and greater share of the people's production. And it is a government so intrusive that it can command free people and free enterprises according to its bureaucratic will.
"Abroad, he is weakening America, shrinking our military, shrinking our commitments to our friends, accommodating our foes, and appeasing the competing forces that are vying for global leadership," Romney said.
Romney wasn't the only one to whap the president at the forum. Jon Huntsman, Obama's former ambassador to China, said the president has had two years to fix the economy and has failed, leaving the country in an economic hole with no leadership and no confidence.
Six of the seven Republican presidential candidates spoke at the forum in Washington, and each bashed Obama's record on Israel.
Rick Santorum called the Iranian regime is the greatest threat to U.S. and Israeli national security and criticized what he says has been a policy of appeasement by the Obama administration.
Romney said the president has set back the cause of peace in the Middle East by chastising Israel as weak in the face of a nuclear threat from Iran.
During his three years as president, Obama has visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraq and offered to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Romney said.
"Yet in three years, he has not found it in his interest to visit Israel, our ally, our friend, the sole Middle East nation that fully shares our values, the nation in President Truman's words, that is an "embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization,'" he continued.
"No, over the past three years, President Obama has instead chastened Israel. In his inaugural address to the United Nations, the president chastised Israel, but said little about the thousands of Hamas rockets raining into its skies. He's publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders. He's insulted its prime minister. And he's been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran."
The Democratic National Committee was quick to refute Romney's rhetoric.
"He said he would treat Iranian business leaders like the 'pariah they are,' yet his charity invests in companies that do business with Iran. He talked about how he would defend Israel, yet he called for starting 'everything at zero' for foreign aid And he talks about how it would be 'unacceptable' for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, yet he said he would have to defer to his lawyers on whether to use military force against Iran's nuclear facilities," the DNC said in a press release.
The DNC pointed to an August article in which the Associated Press reported that the blind trust that manages Romney's investments had, after criticism from campaign rivals in 2007, sold off most shares of companies that conflicted with the candidate's stances on Iran and other issues. But IRS records show that between 2007 and 2009, Romney's family charity continued to buy and sell other investments in companies that dealt with Iranian businesses.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul was the only candidate who did not participate in Wednesday's forum. He is also the only Republican hopeful to say the United States should never take military action or support an attack by Israel to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.