AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attempted to adopt the mantle of change on Friday in an economic speech in which he vowed to bring a fresh start to Washington to generate stronger job growth.
Romney's address in the swing state of Iowa was an effort to take on the role President Barack Obama played in 2008, that of an outsider who would represent an abrupt change if he wins the tight 2012 presidential race.
The threat of Hurricane Sandy swirling toward the East Coast disrupted the campaign, with Romney forced to cancel a Sunday rally in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was unclear what impact the storm might have on early voting taking place in states in the potential storm zone.
In his speech, Romney dismissed Obama as a shadow of his former self, one who wants to protect the status quo and has no plan to repair the weak U.S. economy.
"This election is a choice between the status quo - going forward with the same policies of the last four years - or instead, choosing real change, change that offers promise, promise that the future will be better than the past," he said.
Billed by his campaign as a major speech, Romney's address was a summing up of his economic argument aimed at voters who have yet to make up their minds, with the November 6 election only 11 days away.
Romney has frequently dropped the words "change" or "big change" into campaign speeches in recent days, although he has not made the theme as central to his argument as Obama did in the 2008 election.
In this speech, he used the word "change" at least 16 times, including five times in one breath.
"What this requires is change, change from the course of the last four years. It requires that we put aside the small and the petty, and demand the scale of change we deserve: we need real change, big change," he said.
U.S. gross domestic product growth for the third quarter of this year was reported at 2 percent on Friday, a figure that both campaigns seized on to support their arguments.
The Obama camp said it was proof that economic growth is taking place, albeit slowly.
"While we have more work to do, today's GDP growth report, showing the 13th straight quarter of growth, is more evidence that our economy continues to come back from the worst recession since the Great Depression under President Obama's leadership," the Obama campaign said.
Romney, on the other hand, said the report was discouraging.
"Slow economic growth means slow job growth and declining take-home pay. This is what four years of President Obama's policies have produced," he said.
His speech lacked specifics on what exactly Romney would do to boost the economy other than his five priorities of boosting energy production and trade, improving education, cutting debt and deficits and building small businesses.
Instead, he focused on the big picture, the challenges that await the next president, and stressed he would not replicate Obama's 2009 $787 billion job stimulus package.
"This is not the time to double down on the trickle-down government policies that have failed us. It is time for new, bold changes that measure up to the moment, that can bring America's families the certainty that the future will be better than the past," he said.
Polls show a race that is too close to call. Romney, the underdog all year, made up ground during three presidential debates with Obama this month and vaulted into an even position with the Democratic incumbent.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll had Obama leading Romney among likely voters by 47 percent to 46 percent.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Romney up 3 percentage points nationally, by 50 percent to 47 percent for Obama. In battleground states where the election will be decided, a dogfight was still unfolding.
An NBC/Marist poll had Obama up 3 points in Nevada, 50 percent to 47 percent, while in Colorado - which Obama won in 2008 - the two men were tied at 48 percent apiece.
Romney sought to reassure those who fear he would simply cut the federal budget regardless of the consequences.
He said he and his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, would tackle intractable problems like overhauling Medicare and Social Security, but would do so in a way that protects the programs for current and near retirees.
He said he would "reform healthcare to tame the growth in its cost," a reference to the overhaul Obama conducted of the U.S. healthcare system that Romney wants to repeal and replace.
But he insisted he would preserve popular parts of the Obama healthcare law such as ensuring consumers with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be denied insurance coverage.
Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham