Updated 8:45 p.m. ET
REDMOND, Wash. - Invoking a conservative icon to promote the cause of expanding U.S. markets, Mitt Romney called for creation of a "Reagan Economic Zone" to provide special benefits for the United States and trading partners "genuinely committed to open markets and fair competition."
Romney made his proposal one day after Congress approved three major trade pacts at the urging of the White House, but the GOP presidential candidate credited President Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush.
Since Bush left office, "our nation has been asleep at the switch," Romney contended. "Three major pieces of legislation, agreements actually, worked out by the Bush administration with Columbia, Panama and South Korea, had been languishing in Washington for three years."
At the same time Romney called for efforts to expand trading partnerships with "like-minded" nations, he argued for aggressive sanctions against China, which has been accused of putting up obstacles to U.S. imports and manipulating its currency to enhance its manufacturers' competitive edge in the global marketplace. Romney favors ending U.S. government purchases from China and slapping duties on its imports if Beijing does not change its practices.
He focused mostly on China's currency manipulation. Reverting to his stump speech rhetoric, he promised to impose sanctions on China as one of his first acts in office. "The president will have a chance to do that in just a few days," Romney said. "I hope this time - perhaps because of the campaign coming up - he will finally do the right thing and designate China as a currency manipulator."
The audience consisted of more than 200 Microsoft employees, part of the company's political action committee, which has yet to commit funds to any of the GOP candidates. Many said they had heard Romney speak before when he was campaigning for the nomination four years ago.
In a year when a populist tide is running high, Romney commiserated over the poor image that the corporate sector has.
"I'm afraid in some corners people don't like you very much," Romney told his listeners. "I'm not just talking about Microsoft. . . . They feel that somehow business is bad, that business people are bad. I don't dislike you. I love you!! I appreciate what you do! I appreciate the private sector."
Romney, who suffered attacks on his Mormon faith over the weekend, felt comfortable enough to make a quip about religion when he talked about the government's "sins of omission" and "sins of commission" against the job creators. "I'm not Catholic but I've heard that term from my Catholic friends," he said.
Standing under a big Microsoft banner, Romney used notes, a rarity for him.
His afternoon speech followed a fundraising luncheon that drew about 50 protesters outside a downtown hotel. The protest lasted about 20 minutes and dispersed just before Romney's luncheon was scheduled to start. "Romney's here taking bribes today," one protester said. "He calls it fundraising. I call it bribes." Another carried a sign for one of Romney's GOP rivals: "Cain 2012."
According to The Seattle Times, the Romney fundraiser was hosted by former Rep. George Nethercutt, Seattle developer Martin Selig, wireless tycoons Bruce McCaw and John Stanton, and former Microsoft executive John Connors. Tickets cost $500 for the luncheon and $1,250 for a "photo reception."