WASHINGTON Republican Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama on Friday of presiding over "the greatest job loss in modern American history" in a speech to conservatives that hinted strongly at a run for president.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and lost to John McCain, wasted little time in attacking the Democratic incumbent in remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Let me make this very clear. If I decide to run for president, it won't take me two years to wake up to the job crisis threatening America," Romney said to cheers.
Romney was among many potential Republican presidential aspirants to address the 11,000-strong conservative conference to try to generate buzz for themselves as Republicans consider what is likely to be a crowded field in 2012.
All the speakers to one degree or another criticized Obama, who is likely to be a tough adversary in his re-election bid.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, expected to announce his presidential bid in the weeks ahead, said Obama was projecting a weak foreign policy that emboldened U.S. adversaries.
He said the Obama administration was appeasing Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, on the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak handed power to the army, while undermining friends like Israel.
"Mister President, with bullies, might makes right. Strength makes them submit. Get tough on our enemies -- not on our friends," he said.
More than the other speakers, Romney took on Obama's stewardship of the economy in a sign he believes that is the president's Achilles' heel as Obama girds for his re-election battle in 2012.
U.S. unemployment is at a stubbornly high 9 percent and millions of Americans remain out of work. Obama inherited a financial crisis and deep recession from his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, and says his stimulus policies, much criticized by Republicans, had to be taken to avoid another Depression.
'GOING TO TAKE A NEW PRESIDENT'
"President Barack Obama has stood watch over the greatest job loss in modern American history," Romney said. "And that, my friends, is one inconvenient truth that will haunt this president throughout history.
"It's going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work. It's going to take a new president," he said.
Romney is far advanced in the planning stages for a campaign he is likely to announce in the months ahead. He is polling well among Republicans in national surveys and leads the field in the important early voting state of New Hampshire.
Romney has what some Republicans believe are weak points, such as policy flip-flops during the 2008 campaign and his struggle to explain how the Massachusetts healthcare plan he led as governor is different from Obama's healthcare overhaul, which Republicans are seeking to repeal. Romney made little mention of healthcare in his speech.
Romney's speech made plain his strategy for now is not to dwell on the past but to remain on the offensive against Obama and espouse traditional conservative values of free trade and capitalism.
Another potential candidate, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, gave no hint of any plans to run for the 2012 nomination but pointed out he did not have the same name recognition of some of the other Republican leaders.
The conference concludes on Saturday with a straw poll of Republican presidential candidates.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)