Romney takes aim at Obama stimulus, likens federal debt to a "prairie fire"

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop, Tuesday, May 15, 2012, in Des Moines, Iowa. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
UPDATED 5:05 p.m. ET

(CBS News) DES MOINES, Iowa -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took aim Tuesday at President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package, blaming it for a soaring federal debt that he likened to a prairie fire.

"President Obama started out with a near trillion-dollar stimulus package - was the biggest, most careless one-time expenditure by the federal government in history," Romney said. "And remember this: the stimulus wasn't just wasted - it was borrowed and wasted. We still owe the money, we're still paying interest on it, and it will be that way long after this president's out of office."

In a speech at the Hotel Des Moines to about 200 people, including some prominent Iowa politicians, Romney said that the federal debt is "not solely a Democrat or Republican problem." But he placed the blame for it squarely on Obama, saying he had increased the debt by $5 trillion - or $520,000 per average American household.

"We can't spend another four years talking about solving a problem that we know we're making worse every day," Romney said. "When the men and women who settled the Iowa prairie saw a fire in the distance, they didn't look around for someone else to save them or go back to sleep and hope the wind might change directions. They knew that survival was up to them. A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and across the nation, and every day that we fail to act, that fire gets closer to the homes and the children we love."

Romney said Obama has been feeding rather than putting out the fire. "He has spent more and borrowed more. The time has come for a president, a leader, who will lead. I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno."

The Associated Press, in a fact-check of Romney's speech, said much of the increased debt is a result of depressed tax revenues, bailouts and stimulus rooted in the recession, and in Bush-era tax cuts that Romney wants to extend and expand.

Most economists were recommending stimulus at the time Obama's package passed, in the depth of the recession, though there were varying recommendations as to its composition and size. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Obama stimulus lowered unemployment by millions of jobs since it was enacted in 2009. For the final quarter of 2011, the agency said the government infusion had reduced unemployment rolls by 2 million people and raised gross domestic product by about 1.5 percent.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith called Romney's speech "heavy on dishonest claims about President Obama's record" and light on what she called his failure to lay out a plan to pay for the $5 trillion in tax breaks he has proposed. "Loading the country up with debt while giving tax breaks to the wealthy--America can't afford Romney Economics," she said in a statement. Smith also said that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney "raised state spending 6.5 percent each year and left Massachusetts with the largest per-capita debt of any state in the nation."

Full CBS News coverage: Mitt Romney

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