CHANTILLY, Virginia (Reuters) - In a blast from the past, Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney is likening President Barack Obama's economic record to the weak performance of a Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
Romney returned to the familiar ground of talking about the economy on Wednesday after the campaign trail was dominated for days by the first anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, an issue that played more to Obama's strengths.
Romney accused Obama of being anti-business and compared him to Carter, seen by Republicans as an example of a weak Democratic president. Carter served from 1977 to 1981.
"This is the most anti-small business president that I've seen probably since Carter," he said in a speech in the election battleground state of Virginia. It was his second unflattering reference in two days to Carter.
Comparing Obama to Carter could help Romney frame the economic debate against the Democratic incumbent, who has presided over a slowly recovering economy with 8.2 percent unemployment, $1 trillion annual budget deficits, high gasoline prices and modest job creation.
Under Carter, U.S. economic growth was relatively slow, weighed down by double-digit inflation and rising gasoline prices. He lost his 1980 re-election bid to Ronald Reagan.
At a small business in Chantilly, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, Romney said, "Who would've thought we'd look at the Carter years as the good old days?"
Romney earlier in the week had tried to play down Obama's decision to order the daring U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, saying even Carter would have made that decision. Carter's presidency ended on a sour note, beset by a crisis over American hostages held in Iran and a failed rescue mission.
The Carter references by Romney come amid a close battle ahead of the November 6 election, with opinion polls showing the American electorate almost evenly divided between Obama and the former Massachusetts governor.
"The point is Obama has two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor.
"One was a one-termer and the other, Clinton, was a two-termer. Mitt Romney's job is to make Barack Obama the second Jimmy Carter, not the second Bill Clinton. The best way to do it, maybe the only way to do it, is by stressing the slow economy," Sabato added.
Romney made his argument at the first of two days he is spending in Virginia, a state that has traditionally voted Republican but has seen Democrats in the populous northern part of the state increasingly a decisive factor.
Obama won Virginia in the 2008 election and currently leads Romney here by several percentage points, according to the most recent opinion polls.
Romney is expected to get a boost from former White House hopeful and conservative, Michele Bachmann. A Republican official familiar with the Minnesota representative's plans said she would endorse Romney on Thursday.
Romney told the Chantilly audience that people ask him how he would handle the economy differently than Obama. "I say, 'Well, look at what the president has done, and do the opposite,'" he said to applause.
He called Obama's plans to raise the business tax rate from 35 percent to 40 percent a "direct attack" on small business and said he would cut it to 28 percent. He said he would cut regulations and require that any major regulations be approved by Congress instead of a government agency. He said he also would pursue a more aggressive energy policy.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith accused Romney of supporting "the failed policies that created the economic crisis" that Obama inherited from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Editing by Will Dunham and Lisa Shumaker