By DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney unleashed a strong attack on President Barack Obama’s truthfulness Wednesday, accusing him of running a “hide-and-seek” re-election campaign designed to distract voters from his first-term record while denying them information about his plans for a second.
Addressing an audience of newspaper editors and publishers, Romney said Obama’s recent remarks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a second-term arms reduction treaty had called “his candor into question.” Romney, the likely GOP opponent for Obama in November, also accused the president of undergoing “a series of election-year conversions” on taxes, government regulation and energy production.
“He does not want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press,” Romney said. “By flexibility, he means that what the American public doesn’t know won’t hurt him. He is intent on hiding. You and I will have to do the seeking.”
Romney himself has been sharply criticized by Rick Santorum and other Republican rivals for changing his own positions on issues ranging from abortion to climate control as part of an attempt to win the backing of conservative primary voters. Earlier this year, he reversed course on the minimum wage to bring his stance in line with party orthodoxy, saying he no longer believes it should rise along with inflation.
Romney spoke to the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors as the Republican nominee-in-waiting, his standing confirmed by three primary victories Tuesday night in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
The former Massachusetts governor holds a commanding lead in delegates to the Republican National Convention and is on a pace to clinch the party’s top prize by the end of the primary season in June.
Responding to a question, he declined to say if he would support proposed legislation to protect confidential sources that journalists often rely on.
“Do I see a role for confidential sources? Yes. Do I ever see a time when a confidential source would have to be revealed? Yeah, I can see that, too,” he said.
And while he joked about sharing the rigors of campaign travel with reporters, he also took a mild swipe at some of the practices they employ. “Frankly, in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors who exercise quality control. I miss the days of two or more sources for a story — when at least one source was actually named,” he said.
The bulk of Romney’s remarks amounted to a rebuttal of sorts to Obama, who spoke from the same stage on Tuesday to the annual meeting of The Associated Press. The president said a newly drafted Republican budget in Congress represented a radical vision. “It is a prescription for decline.”
Romney disagreed. He said that instead of laying out plans for a second term, Obama “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.”
The Republican highlighted two areas in which he said Obama has been particularly opaque about his plans, one involving presidential comments made recently to Medvedev and the other relating to the future of the government’s largest benefit programs, Social Security and Medicare.
Obama told Medvedev in a remark picked up on a microphone that he would have more flexibility to negotiate an arms treaty with Russia after the U.S. election. White House aides have since said it was a statement of the obvious.
But Romney said the episode raises questions.
“What exactly does President Obama intend to do differently once he is no longer accountable to the voters?” he asked. “With all the challenges the nation faces, this is not the time for President Obama’s hide-and-seek campaign.”
As for Medicare and Social Security, Romney said he has outlined plans to preserve both for current or near retirees, with changes to extend the programs for future generations.
“I’d be willing to consider the president’s plan, but he doesn’t have one. That’s right, in over three years he has failed to enact or even propose a serious plan to solve our entitlement crisis.”
Instead, he said Obama “is the only president to ever cut $500 billion from Medicare. As a result, more than half of doctors say they will cut back on treating seniors.
The $500 billion cut was part of the health care law that Obama pushed through Congress, and the money would be used to help cover subsidies for those who can’t afford the cost of insurance. Romney has pledged numerous times to seek the repeal of the health care law, but aides have said he would put the $500 billion toward deficit reduction, rather than restore it to Medicare.
David Axelrod, a top strategist for the president, said the budget Romney was defending would turn Medicare into a voucher program and that federal spending on education, research and development and renewable energy would take a “huge hit under their budget.”
While Romney spoke to an audience of publishers and editors, Santorum insisted in his home state that he was forging ahead with his campaign.
“People in Pennsylvania know me. We’ve got a strong base of support here, and we’re going to work very, very hard,” he said, referring to the state’s primary on April 24.
“Then we’re going to get into May. There’s movement in Texas to make Texas a winner-take-all state. You throw those 154 delegates on our ballot and all of a sudden this race becomes a very different race.”
The Associated Press delegate count shows Romney with 658 delegates, more than halfway to the 1,144 needed for the nomination. Santorum has 281, Newt Gingrich 135 and Ron Paul 51.
The candidates face a three-week primary intermission before the next contests in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Associated Press writers Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this story.