WASHINGTON – Originally planning to focus on education, Mitt Romney instead reignited the debate over his business credentials on Wednesday, welcoming scrutiny of the private equity firm he co-founded and declaring he's a far more qualified steward of the economy than President Barack Obama.
At the same time, Romney said that if he wins the White House, he wants Congress to delay addressing looming tax increases and spending cuts until after he takes office.
"Right now we have an economy in trouble, and someone who spent their career in the economy is more suited to help fix the economy than someone who spent his life in politics and as a community organizer," Romney told Time magazine.
The comments — the first since Obama personally questioned Romney's experience at Bain Capital — largely overshadowed a Washington speech that offered the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's first extensive plans for the nation's education system. Romney, who has been reluctant to stray far from the economic issues at the core of the presidential campaign, charged that Millions of American children are getting a "third-world education" under Obama.
"And America's minority children suffer the most," Romney declared. "This is the civil-rights issue of our era. And it's the great challenge of our time."
He continued: "President Obama has made his choice, and I have made mine. As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America."
Five months before Election Day, Romney is working to add meat to his prescriptions for some of the nation's most pressing problems. He has offered few details so far on foreign policy, health care and education, following a playbook that heaps criticism on the Democratic president's policies but offers only a vague road map for what he would do differently.
Romney told Time magazine that if he wins the presidency, he wants Congress to wait until he takes office to deal with the so-called fiscal "cliff" on Jan. 1, 2013, when two rounds of tax cuts expire and automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs kick in. In the interview, Romney suggested that he was open to a temporary measure to keep the economy going until he had a chance to shape a "permanent" solution.
Romney also said that heading off the looming tax hikes and spending cuts could be done in a piecemeal way. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has suggested he wants a fiscal "grand bargain" to address the country's ills.
Government analysts say that current fiscal policies, if unchanged, would likely cause a recession.
The former Massachusetts governor defended his work in the private sector in the interview, but he initially struggled to identify specific skills or policies he learned at Bain that would help him create an environment in which jobs would be created. He later identified trade, labor and energy policies.
"I happen to believe that having been in the private sector for 25 years gives me a perspective on how jobs are created — that someone who's never spent a day in the private sector, like President Obama, simply doesn't understand," he said.
Asked whether he'd welcome a focus and debate on his career at Bain, Romney said: "Well, of course. I'd like to also focus on his record."
Romney's intended focus on Wednesday, however, was education. He outlined a voucher-like plan to let low-income and disabled students use federal money to attend public schools, public charter schools and, in some cases, private schools. Federal funds could also be used for tutoring or digital courses.
The proposal is line with GOP reforms aimed at giving students more educational choices. But it's unclear how schools in areas that depend on the federal funding would fare.
The proposal is not expected to include any new federal money for education, but it represented his most detailed plans to date on what he called a "failing" education system.
The issue is a key concern for most Americans. Education has ranked in the top three of importance in the AP-GfK poll for the last two years; 84 percent of Americans said education was an extremely or very important issue to them personally in the most recent survey in February.
Romney aggressively criticized the president's connection to teachers' unions, suggesting that his dependence on organized labor's campaign donations have prevented him from improving the system.
"The teachers' unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way," Romney said. "The teachers' unions don't fight for our children."
His argument carries some risk. His regular criticism of labor unions, in particular, threatens to alienate voters in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where a close election may be decided.
Obama's campaign said the budget Romney signed into law as Massachusetts governor cost 14,500 teachers, librarians and school police officers their jobs.
"Not exactly the record of a job creator," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. "Mitt Romney gave a vague, detail-free speech this morning on education and confirmed, as if there were any doubt, just how far back he would take us."
The day before the speech, Romney announced a team of education policy advisers that includes former Education Secretary Rod Paige and other officials from President George W. Bush's administration. Paige is among several prominent opponents of teachers' unions on the panel. As education secretary in 2004, he labeled the National Education Association a "terrorist organization."
Romney's positions on education have evolved over time. He once supported the Bush-era education overhaul known as "No Child Left Behind," but he has since generally come out against the policy many conservatives see as an expansion of the federal government.
The plans he unveiled Wednesday would strip the teeth from the law that punishes poorly performing schools. But he said he supports "straightforward public report cards" to evaluate schools.
Despite his criticism of Obama, the president has embraced some reforms that started as Republican ideas, according to Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Through their "Race to the Top" competition, for example, they have encouraged states to lift caps on the number of charter schools, a policy that Romney supports as well.
"It doesn't leave a lot of room for Mitt Romney to draw contrast with President Obama," Petrilli said.
The Obama campaign responded by releasing comments from a series of Republicans — high-profile Romney supporters Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, among them — praising Obama's education policies.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.