WASHINGTON Republican candidate Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama on Wednesday of being "intent on hiding" his true positions, in a growing war of words between the two men who are increasingly likely to face off in November's presidential election.
Romney slammed Obama a day after winning three presidential primaries and moving closer to finally clinching the Republican nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor cited remarks by Obama to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week that embarrassed the U.S. president when they were caught on camera. Obama assured the Russian leader that he would have "more flexibility" to work on missile defense after the November 6 election.
"He is intent on hiding. You and I will have to do the seeking," Romney said in a speech to a conference of news executives. Romney, who is known for his stiffness on the campaign trail, seemed relaxed while giving remarks that focused exclusively on Obama rather than his Republican rivals.
Romney was speaking at the same conference where Obama attacked him on Tuesday in comments that gave a clear signal that the general election campaign is effectively under way.
Obama mentioned Romney by name, a move he had avoided before then, and criticized him for supporting a Republican budget plan that would make stark cuts in Medicare and other programs for the poor and elderly.
In a wide-ranging speech hitting Obama's record in office, Romney answered the criticisms.
"DISTORTIONS AND INACCURACIES"
"I looked at what the president said. There were just so many things that I found to be distortions and inaccuracies, it's hard to give a full list," he said.
"President Obama came here yesterday and railed against arguments no one is making and criticized policies no one is proposing. It's one of his favorite strategies - setting up straw men to distract from his record."
"It's very clear that Romney now appears to be a prohibitive frontrunner and the Obama campaign, which had presumed it would have to deal with Romney all along, has now directly attacked him," said Thomas Hollihan, who teaches media and politics at the University of Southern California.
After his election victories in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin, Romney now has more than half the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nod from his party.
But he must first knock out conservative Republican rival Rick Santorum. A battle is brewing at the April 24 primary in Pennsylvania, Santorum's home state.
The former Senator vowed on Tuesday to win the state and go on into May when more conservative states like North Carolina and Texas will vote.
"We have to win here. ... We have a strong base of support here, and we're going to work very, very hard. And then we're going to get into May, and May looks very, very good," he said in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
In a campaign where independent voters will be a critical voting bloc, Santorum's departure from the campaign could free Romney to move to the middle in effort to court them.
Obama leads Romney 48 to 39 percent in a dozen battleground states which could swing for either party in the general election, according to a Gallup poll on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Editing by Jackie Frank)