* Debt strategy carries risks, rewards
* Romney wants to put US on path to balanced budget
* Doesn’t cite specifics of where to cut
By Steve Holland
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., May 16 (Reuters) - Mitt Romney joined congressional Republicans on Wednesday in attacking President Barack Obama’s handling of debt and deficits, a strategy that carries both risks and rewards for the likely Republican presidential nominee.
As a new battle looms in Washington, Romney put the deficit at the heart of his campaign at an event in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he spoke in front of a counter that clocked up the constant increase of America’s debt of $15.685 trillion.
Romney went after Obama for annual $1 trillion deficits, saying Obama had criticized his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, for deficit spending but has only made it worse.
“I find it incomprehensible that a president could come to office and call his predecessor’s record irresponsible and unpatriotic, and then do almost nothing to fix it and instead every year to add more and more and more spending,” Romney said.
Focusing on debt allows the former Massachusetts governor to widen the front in his assault on Obama’s handling of the economy, after concentrating most of his fire until now on his opponent’s unemployment record.
Romney’s effort may be rewarded by drawing more support from Tea Party fiscal conservatives whose No.1 issue is reducing the size of government. Many of them were cool to Romney during the Republican primary campaign and flirted with conservative alternatives such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
But the risk for Romney is that his deficit rhetoric could be associated with House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who was the politician mostly blamed from last year’s damaging fight in Congress over the debt ceiling.
A New York Times poll last August found that 47 percent blamed congressional Republicans for taking the country to the edge of a debt default last summer in a dispute over raising the U.S. borrowing authority. Only 29 percent blamed Obama and his Democrats.
Republican Boehner reopened the fight this week and told Obama in a meeting on Wednesday that he would not allow another increase of the debt limit without spending cuts.
While Boehner has specific ideas of where he would cut, Romney is being far more vague to avoid raising the concerns of voters who might be reliant on government programs that congressional Republicans want to squeeze for savings.
This is especially important in the election battleground state of Florida, where many senior citizens are dependent on entitlement programs like Medicare for the elderly.
Romney is vowing to get the country on a path to a balanced budget by going after wasteful spending but is not offering many details.
In St. Petersburg, he vowed to put every federal program under the microscope to determine whether each is so important that it is essential to “borrow money from China” to pay for them.
He said he would work to repeal the Obama-led overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, which he said is contributing to the debt, and would send many programs back to the states for handling.
Likening the debt crisis to a prairie fire that needs extinguishing, Romney said he would take responsibility and “put it out.”
“It’s high time that we have a president who is going to stop this spending and borrowing inferno,” he said.
The deficit is likely to grow as a campaign issue because Congress will be faced with another request from the Treasury Department at the end of this year to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.