SALT LAKE CITY — Outlining his possible rationale for a third presidential bid, Mitt Romney said Wednesday night that political leaders in both parties are failing to address the nation’s most pressing problems — climate change, poverty and education reform, among them — as he acknowledged lessons learned from his failed 2012 presidential campaign.
“Why run for office in the first place?” Romney asked aloud as he addressed a sold-out crowd of about 3,000 at an investment management conference in Utah. “The major challenges that this country faces are not being dealt with by leaders in Washington.”
He continued: “On both sides of the aisle, we just haven’t been able to take on and try and make progress on the major issues of our day.”
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s appearance was his second public address since privately telling potential donors earlier in the month that he’s considering a 2016 presidential campaign. He used his remarks to broaden a populist platform he first touched on last week that marks a sharp shift from the rhetoric of his first two campaigns.
While hitting familiar Republican points criticizing the size of the federal debt, Romney at times sounded like a Democrat, calling for President Barack Obama and other leaders in Washington to act on common liberal priorities such as climate change, poverty and education.
“I’m one of those Republicans who thinks we are getting warmer and that we contribute to that,” he said of climate change, charging that federal leaders have failed to enact global agreements needed to tackle the problem.
His evolving platform comes as he works to reshape his image after consecutive presidential defeats. Romney spent little time talking about poverty, the middle class or climate change in a 2012 campaign in which opponents cast him as an out-of-touch millionaire. But in public and private conversations in recent weeks he has focused on poverty, perhaps above all, a dramatic shift for the former private-equity executive.
“Let’s deal with poverty,” he said Wednesday night. “Have we done it? No. Let’s do it.”
Romney acknowledged his past political struggles with a touch of humor, citing a remark from former Vice President Walter Mondale who was defeated by former President Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential contest.
“He said, ‘You know, I always wanted to run for president in the worst way. And that’s just what I did,’” Romney said with a chuckle. “I learned some lessons, too.”
Romney had previously acknowledged that climate change is real, noting in his 2010 book that “human activity is a contributing factor.” But he questioned the extent to which man was contributing to the warming of the planet and said throughout his 2012 campaign that America shouldn’t spend significant resources combatting the problem — particularly with major polluters like China doing little.
The former Massachusetts governor also criticized Obama’s State of the Union address, saying the president had minimized the threat of radical, violent jihadism and terror attacks in Paris.
“This is a very serious threat the world faces,” he said. “And to minimize that, and sort of brush it aside with a few minutes of discussion, I thought was disappointing.”
Romney said a growing education gap is one of the country’s biggest challenges and suggested that teacher pay should be raised.
At times during the speech, he appeared equal parts candidate and economics professor, gesturing from behind a podium to a projected slideshow of graphs and pie charts of the federal debt and poverty rates.
Before the speech — tickets were sold to the public — Romney spoke to a private dinner of about 130 clients of Diversify Inc., the investment firm that sponsored the event. Tyler Fagergren, a manager with the firm, said people asked Romney questions about the economy and investment but were not allowed to ask about a possible 2016 campaign.
Romney told the larger audience that he’s honored to be a Utah resident now. He’s built a home in an upscale Salt Lake City suburb and registered late last year as a Utah voter.
MICHELLE L. PRICE AND STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press