By Sam Youngman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney warned on Friday that the U.S. economy faced a huge fiscal hole and high taxes like the state of California if he did not win November's election against President Barack Obama.
Seeking to keep his focus on economic issues, the comments were a departure for Romney, who usually holds up Europe's economic troubles, not California's, as an example of what could happen to the American economy.
"There are only two ways to go: Like America in the past," Romney said. "Or like California, where they raise taxes higher and higher and higher. They scare away employers ... and they have huge deficits," he said in a telephone town-hall meeting with voters from four swing states.
Romney promised to repeal Obama's signature healthcare reform law, cut taxes and roll back what he said were burdensome regulations on Wall Street.
"We could choose the path of California or we could choose the path of growth and balanced budgets," he told the voters in Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and Iowa.
Focusing on California and its $15.7 billion budget gap was a rare chance for Romney to keep his message concentrated on Obama's handling of the weak economy without issues like gay marriage and bullying dominating the campaign as they have since last week.
A fuss over a conservative group's plan to make ads about Obama's controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright overshadowed Romney on a trip to Florida on Thursday.
RISING IN POLLS
The former Massachusetts governor is climbing in opinion polls and is neck and neck with Obama. A Gallup seven-day average rolling poll had Romney ahead on Friday by 1 percentage point at 46 percent.
Helping Romney's rise in the polls have been moves by Republicans to rally round him now that his main opponents for the nomination have dropped out of the race.
Romney spoke by phone to George W. Bush after the former president told ABC News that "I support Mitt Romney," the nearest he has come to an endorsement. Romney thanked Bush for his remark, a campaign aide said.
The Obama campaign accused Romney of mishandling debt when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
"Mitt Romney knows a lot about broken promises - his tenure in Massachusetts was defined by them, especially of the issues of debt, spending and jobs," the campaign said. In 2002, Romney promised he'd use his private sector experience to cut spending and debt, but both increased on his watch and he left Massachusetts with the largest per-capita debt in the nation."
Romney released his first paid general election television ad on Friday, laying out his agenda for the first day if he is elected president.
He said he would approve the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada, which Obama put on hold earlier this year, propose "tax cuts and reform that reward job creators" and issue an order to scrap the healthcare law.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)