By JON ERICSON
CEDAR FALLS — Acting very much the front runner, Mitt Romney schmoozed with potential voters at a Cedar Falls diner Thursday morning.
In speaking to an overflow crowd at J’s Homestyle Cooking, Romney saved his attacks for President Barack Obama. But even more than attacking the president, the former Massachusetts governor worked on selling himself and his ideas.
Romney was introduced by Mike Leavitt, the former governor of Utah, who praised Romney’s work in organizing the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Leavitt said Romney turned a $400 million deficit in the Olympic committee and turned it into a $100 million surplus by the end of the games.
Romney told the crowd he wants to free Americans to jumpstart the economy.
“The president says he wants to transform America, I don’t want to transform America into something else. I want to restore it to the principles that our founders, our patriots, recognize,” Romney said.
As his rivals in the Iowa Republican caucus race have been lobbing attacks at each other over the past two weeks, Romney has mostly stayed out of the fray.
Romney has been focusing on economic policies as he travels across Iowa this week. He wants to reduce government regulations, open up free and responsible trade, lower corporate taxes and expand energy production.
He says the answer is not in more government and fears Obama has designs on a more Socialist republic akin to European countries.
“I don’t think he understands the American economy, of how powerful the vision of the pioneers and the patriots and the founders is, what extraordinary capacity this nation has for greatness,” Romney said.
Romney spoke at the diner at 8 a.m. People started showing up seeking seats in the small venue at 5:45 a.m. Those who were shut out of the restaurant huddled in a heated tent outside, where Romney also briefly spoke, then shook hands and mugged for photos with babies, children and retirees.
Jarrod and Gretchen McGinnis moved from Kansas City to Cedar Falls two years ago. They took their three young daughters to the event to get them involved in the process. The McGinnises plan to caucus, but haven’t yet decided on a candidate. They like Romney’s message, but are leery of his record.
“Our question is how conservative Romney will be,” said Jarrod McGinnis.
The crowd for Romney was robust and diverse, with a horde of national media, several Democrats who came out of curiosity, some diehard supporters looking to meet their guy and some conservatives still struggling to get behind what many believe is the establishment candidate for 2012.
While Romney’s stances on economic issues are similar to most of his candidates, he distances himself from most extreme views presented by some.
Ron Paul proposes cutting $1 trillion from the federal budget in his first year. Romney fears that could send the nation spiraling back into recession by dropping that large of a portion of the economy. Instead, Romney proposes cutting $500 billion from the budget over four years.
He proposes repealing the Dodd-Frank bill that placed new regulations on the financial industry after the collapse. But he wants to replace it with more targeted legislation.
“I’m not one who says we should have no regulation. Of course we should have regulation. It needs to be streamlined and modern and encourage the private sector rather than overwhelm it,” Romney said. He said Dodd-Frank makes it tough for local and regional banks to keep up. But he thinks rules need to be in place to require appropriate capital behind bank assets and to ensure financial institutions don’t get overleveraged.