By Sam Youngman
WESTERVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - White House candidate Mitt Romney on Friday kept his focus on attacking President Barack Obama's handling of the economy, in the face of Democrats' attempts to paint the Republican hopeful as weak on national security.
Speaking in the Rust Belt swing state of Ohio, Romney accused Obama of wanting to transform America's economy into a more tightly regulated European model. The former business executive promised he would restore the principles of free-market economic freedom.
"Now, the election before us presents an opportunity to either restore and strengthen those opportunities and principles, or choose new ones," Romney said at Otterbein College.
The Obama campaign tried to bring the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden to the forefront with a video that suggested Romney might not have made the decision to kill bin Laden if the Republican had been president at the time.
"Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?" the video asks, before referring to news reports quoting the former Massachusetts governor saying it was "not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars, just trying to catch one person."
Romney kept his message focused on the economy.
"We're about 5 1/2 million jobs short of where we were before the election, and he hasn't turned that around," Romney said. "This is a tough time for the American people."
Romney received praise from pundits for a speech midweek when he launched his general election campaign after cruising to victories in five Republican primaries.
He laid out a case against Obama in the address for failing to create jobs and rein in regulation.
But on Friday Romney was muted. He did not mention GDP numbers released early in the day that indicated a continued sluggish recovery.
Gross domestic product grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate, in the first quarter, down from 3 percent in the fourth quarter.
That is bad news for Obama as he faces charges of failing to bring the economy back to life quick enough. The GDP figure was tempered by data showing the biggest rise in consumer spending in more than a year.
Romney worked hard to portray Obama, who he did not mention by name, as a politician whose words on the economic recovery differ from the data and reality.
"You will hear words from people running for office that sound great, but sometimes what people say is not a perfect example of what they're going to do," Romney said. "Sometimes appearances do not conform with the facts."
Romney's message was somewhat blunted by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, appearing alongside the candidate, repeatedly talked of how his critical swing state has jobs to offer young people graduating college.
Romney called on young people to borrow from their parents, if necessary, to attend college.
"We've always encouraged young people: Take, take a shot, go for it. Take a risk. Get the education. Borrow money if you have to from your parents. Start a business," he said.
Vulnerable to criticism on job creation, Obama and his allies are trying to make the election campaign about more than the economy.
The White House made a push to support low-interest student loans this week and has begun to mention the bin Laden killing, a clear national security success.
Obama accused congressional Republicans on Friday of "being in a time machine" for wanting employers to have a say in whether healthcare coverage should provide free birth control for women.
"This is a party that says it prides itself on being rabidly anti-regulation. These are folks who claim to believe in freedom from government interference and meddling, but it doesn't seem to bother them when it comes to women's health," he told a women's conference.
But the economy is Americans' top concern.
"Polls show that Americans feel unemployment is worse than the current rate and the president's assertions that the current rate of growth is the new normal puts him at odds with voters," Republican strategist Adam Temple said.
The Obama campaign appears to be getting some relief from an easing of gas prices, which have fallen back in the last few weeks from nearly $4 gallon.
(Editing By Alistair Bell; Desking by Stacey Joyce)