HILLSBOROUGH, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney returned to his economic message on Friday, highlighting a "bridge to nowhere" rebuilt by stimulus money and warning the U.S. economy could suffer a fiscal crisis like California's if he is not elected in November.
Rising in the polls this week, Romney is eager to follow through by hammering at the White House's handling of the weak economy.
He used the backdrop of a 1860s-era bridge in New Hampshire to illustrate what he called the wasteful government spending of President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan passed in 2009.
The stone bridge, rebuilt with more than $150,000 of stimulus funds, crosses a river but ends abruptly on one side with an 8-foot (2.4-metre) drop to a grassy field near a Ford dealership.
"This is the absolute 'bridge to nowhere' if there ever was one," Romney told a crowd of supporters. "That's your stimulus dollars at work - a bridge that goes nowhere."
A notorious "bridge to nowhere" that connected the Alaskan mainland with an isolated island became a symbol of congressional pork-barrel projects, spurring public outrage and leading lawmakers last year to impose a temporary ban on earmarks - special-interest projects added to major bills.
Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, says he would cut spending and put America on the path to a balanced budget if he defeats Obama in the November 6 election. He pointed to the stimulus as an example of the president's failed leadership.
"It is, without question, the largest one-time careless expenditure of government money in American history," he said of the stimulus.
Supporters of the stimulus said it helped prevent the United States from slipping into a economic depression.
After two weeks of a news agenda dominated by gay marriage, bullying accusations, Obama's trip to Afghanistan and controversy over a conservative group's plan to make ads about Obama's controversial ex-pastor, Romney sought to refocus attention on the economy, perceived as Obama's main weakness.
The former Massachusetts governor warned that the U.S. economy faced a huge fiscal hole and high taxes like California's if he is not elected this autumn.
"There are only two ways to go: Like America in the past," Romney said. "Or like California, where they raise taxes higher and higher and higher. They scare away employers ... and they have huge deficits," he said in a telephone town-hall meeting with voters from four swing states.
The comments were a departure for Romney, who usually holds up Europe's economic troubles, not California's $15.7 billion budget gap, as an example of a doom-laden scenario for the American economy.
Romney's poll numbers are rising despite his coming under fire from the Obama campaign this week for cutting blue-collar jobs when he headed the Bain Capital private equity firm.
A Gallup seven-day average rolling survey had Romney ahead on Friday by 1 percentage point at 46 percent
In an effort to look presidential, Romney released his first paid general election television ad on Friday that laid out his agenda for the first day if he is elected.
The video said he would approve the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada, which Obama put on hold earlier this year, propose "tax cuts and reform that reward job creators" and issue an order to scrap the healthcare law.
The Obama campaign accused Romney of mishandling debt when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
"Mitt Romney knows a lot about broken promises - his tenure in Massachusetts was defined by them, especially of the issues of debt, spending and jobs," the campaign said. In 2002, Romney promised he'd use his private sector experience to cut spending and debt, but both increased on his watch and he left Massachusetts with the largest per-capita debt in the nation.".
Helping Romney's rise in the polls in recent weeks have been moves by Republicans to rally round him now that his main opponents for the nomination have dropped out of the race.
Romney spoke by phone to George W. Bush after the former president told ABC News that he supports, the nearest he has come to an endorsement. Romney thanked Bush for his remark, a campaign aide said.
Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Editing by Peter Cooney